Playing the game, Garth Baker

 

The Legend of Beau Baxter
Ivan Dunn
HarperCollins, $36.99,
ISBN 9781869508234

 

A Perfect Gentleman: The Sir Wilson Whineray Story
Bob Howitt
HarperCollins, $49.99,
ISBN 9781869508173

 

All Blacks Don’t Cry: A Story of Hope
John Kirwan
Penguin Books, $42.00,
ISBN 9780143204800

 

Here are three different stories about rugby heroes. The Legend of Beau Baxter is a light-hearted fiction about the outstanding play of one Beau Baxter – both on and off the pitch – during the 1924 Invincibles’ tour. A first-person brag about heroic play, sexual conquests and practical jokes, this story is as enjoyable – and as believable – as a quick yarn before the pub closes at 6 o’clock.  Bravado and constant action, instead of character development or emotional exploration, is the true story here.

Next in chronological order, A Perfect Gentleman is the life story of Sir Wilson Whineray, described in the blurb as having “iconic status”. The bulk of the book concerns his playing career, especially as the All Black captain in the 1960s when the All Blacks were the pre-eminent international team. His later achievements as a business leader are also covered. The book follows the usual rugby biography formula: a third-person narrative offering a few new behind-the-scenes stories to fill out what was already publicly known and much discussed. As is appropriate for a perfect gentleman of his time, Whineray makes no revelations and stirs up no controversies. He also offers very little personal insight, and his biography simply reinforces his public persona.

The latest hero is John Kirwan, All Black great of the 1980s. All Blacks Don’t Cry tells the story of his depression during his playing days, and how he’s managed since then. This book extends Kirwan’s recent role as the public face of a hugely successful campaign encouraging men to acknowledge and manage their depression. Having already produced a standard, once-over-lightly rugby biography, Kirwan tells a much more personal story here, graphically revealing all the many emotions, including self-doubts and anxieties, of a professional sportsman. Or an ordinary bloke.

By telling his story, Kirwan is articulating and naming feelings in order to build readers’ awareness and emotional literacy. He provides credible masculine endorsement that emotions are real and worthwhile, despite their usual absence from public male life, and from rugby player biographies. While covering the grim reality of his depression and panic attacks, Kirwan also describes the positive emotions that keep him well now, and talks enthusiastically about being a partner, father, son, surfer and (sometimes) successful international rugby coach. And finding calm when on his own. He has played and coached in Italy and Japan, and talks of how masculinity and emotional expression is defined differently – and sometimes more healthily – than in Kiwi culture.

While aiming to advise men on how to stay healthy, his book is a personal rave that circles different themes. It is sometimes hard to distil the key features of his advice. His story doesn’t follow any obvious timeline, which makes the order of events hard to follow, but it doesn’t matter. This contrasts with the strict chronological sequence of Whineray’s biography where everything seems to have a natural order and achievements are a consequence of what went before. Unfortunately the factors that contributed to Whineray emerging as a good rugby player, and becoming an effective leader and a perfect gentleman, are not explored. The lack of an analytical back story contrasts with Kirwan’s frank discussion.

His book’s title, All Blacks Don’t Cry, and his focus on personal revelations show that Kirwan is setting out to subvert the typical rugby biography. He is deliberately telling a much more personal story to promote a greater good. That it comes from an All Black, presumably well-versed in the usual clichés of the public male persona, makes it more persuasive. Kirwan’s deft manoeuvring between the personal and the public is as agile as anything he did on the field.

Both Whineray and Kirwan have managed to break free of their early, intense fame as rugby players and successfully apply their experience, leadership and name recognition to other endeavours. This is a difficult transition few other All Blacks have managed so well. While Whineray’s public life is coming to an end, Kirwan is still finding his potential. It will be interesting to see where he goes from here, and how we’ll respond as he continues to evolve into a new, still undefined, hero.

Whineray and Kirwan are both men of their time and together they represent the social and gender changes of the last 50 years. Whineray’s well-maintained, calm public demeanour of the 1960s and Kirwan’s struggle between his personal reality and the public stoicism expected in the 1980s, and his recent championing of self-awareness and emotional expression, reflect the evolving Kiwi man. We hope.

 

Garth Baker is a rugby fan and ordinary bloke.     

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Posted in Autobiography, Biography, Non-fiction, Review and Sport
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