It’s Saturday 21 September, 3:45 p.m. I’m lying flat on my back in Ward 3B, Room 11, Dunedin Hospital. Four of us, flat on our backs, for this is fracture country. Ron, a farmer from Saddle Hill, broke his tibia in two places when he jumped off a tractor which was running backwards down hill. It wasn’t his tractor. He was delivering it to a neighbour when it ran out of grunt and began to roll back. He was due to go to New Caledonia in two weeks for a holiday. Not now.
Graham’s an invalid. Paraplegic. Been in a wheelchair for years. Now he has a disk problem with his neck. He wears a neck brace. He lives alone. On Monday he’ll have neck surgery. A piece of bone will be grafted, taken from his hip.
Simon’s in his mid-twenties. Strong, athletic, a contractor who’s been working ripping up the Central Otago railway line. The historic scenic Central line is another of the sacrifices made in the name of modernisation and progress in New Zealand. In the name of thundering, belching heavy road transport.
His and his partner’s contract is to remove sleepers and track at a rate of 1.25 km per day. But recently an employee of the Railways Department has been pressing them to do 2 km per day. This was possible, just, though only by Simon getting another guy to work with him on earthmoving equipment. But this creates hazards.
As Simon puts it ‑ ‘the right hand’s not always sure what the left’s doing’. That’s why he’s here. He was repairing a track on his dozer when his mate, unaware of his presence, returned, released the hydraulics and he was crushed. His left hip is completely shattered and on Monday a surgeon is going to try to build him a hip and other bits out of pieces of metal. He’s been in traction for 10 days. Abrasions and lacerations, and a long delay in getting him to hospital, meant surgeons felt risk of infection was too great. Hence the delay. The traction is necessary to try to prevent his leg becoming 3 inches shorter than the other due to loss of bone and muscle.
Simon’s amazingly perky and positive. But angry, too, about the pressures imposed on working people these days. He’s travelled a lot and has managed a yacht-chartering business in the Mediterranean and elsewhere. Chartering is something he’d like to get into himself before too long, north of Auckland, if he can raise the wind.
I’m here because I fell off my bike at about 4:30 p.m. two days ago. I was coasting down the hill, no more than 150 metres from home, when I fell off on a corner I’ve rounded hundreds of times without a hint of misadventure. Light rain was falling, there must have been a film of oil or mud on the road, my front wheel drifted, caught, and down I went on my hip. Result, abrasions to hand, arm, head, shoulder, and a broken femur close to the hip joint.
Ten hours after arriving in hospital by ambulance I had my operation – now I have a metal plate screwed to my femur and a screw in my hip. You’d think we’d all be hosed off, and we are. Yet there’s one thing that has kept us animated, smiling and cheering for most of the afternoon. First it was the prospect, and now the likelihood, of Otago beating Auckland at rugby.
In the south, Auckland’s rugby is respected but not greatly liked. Certainly there is a feeling that Auckland’s influence on New Zealand rugby is too great, and that players from outside that union have to be considerably better if they are to break into the All Black side. As anyone who has played team sports at provincial level will attest, even run-of-the-mill players can look very good. Auckland has a few of those. But to shine against strong opposition when playing for less star-studded sides, a player has to be exceptional. The feeling throughout New Zealand is that the All Black selectors are apt to underestimate the abilities of players of rare ability spread throughout New Zealand.
The chances of a player from outside the First Division making the All Blacks today are all but non-existent. Which brings me to Paul ‘Ginge’ Henderson, Otago’s outstanding open side flanker. ‘Ginge’ is a Southlander. He moved to play for Otago in order to be in a first division side and enhance his chances of All Black selection. After a series of stunning performances Henderson made the All Black touring team for the British Isles and France, then Argentina; but because of the prior claims and excellence of the likes of Jones, Whetton and Brewer he was not able to command a place in the test teams (although he played well in his only test earlier this year.) However, most people saw him as a logical choice for the World Cup. So when young Aucklander Mark Carter was brought in and Henderson excluded, there was an outcry especially in the South. Rumours flew. One popular view was that Henderson was the victim of horse trading between Hart and Wyllie – Hart agreeing to one of Wyllie’s Cantabrians (Philpott perhaps) in return for Carter.
In the south people were outraged, not because they don’t think Carter is a fine player, but because Carter has yet to show himself as the better player. Even more important, he has yet to pay his dues.
Henderson is tenacious, a tousled, rugged terrier who harries and hounds relentlessly. He’d make a marvellous stand-in for a hunter’s dog, prepared to track and flounder away all day. Henderson the player has good hands, tackles well, is good on the ground, and is skilled at linking with the backs. He anticipates and reads a game well – all told a superb all-flanker.
If Otago can beat Auckland today, and win its final two games, it will win its first ever National Championship. After an hour’s play Otago leads 14‑6. Local commentator Steve Davie, as partisan as they come, is screaming, shrill. His love of rugby is so great he often sounds as if he believes the ultimate test of a man’s mettle is his ability in the heat and rough and tumble of rugby, but this afternoon the cripples in 3B, 11 couldn’t care. We’ve cheered every score, every big ‘hit’, every clearing kick. Every surge, graunch, thud.
Fifteen minutes from full time I protest. An orderly comes and wheels me off to X-Ray. I cajole the radiographers and they do a slick job so I’m back in time to see the highlights on T.V. It’s weird, really, this attraction to rugby, to the hype of today’s Coliseums. Weird, given the physical incapabilities of the four of us in 3B. 11, and the physical dangers the game presents, that we should admire the efforts of those who put themselves at such risk of injury.
In these economically, and spiritually depressed times, rugby – and sport in general ‑ assumes an importance greater than normal. And rugby, for instance, highlights the value New Zealanders place upon group involvement and effort, and wish to retain. In Henderson they saw someone unassuming, reliable, resilient, uncomplaining; someone who’d come back from serious injury; someone who’d been unfairly, unjustly treated.
It seems to me that while New Zealanders continue to value individual effort and excellence, concern for others and a need to contribute to the greater good remain as a cornerstone of our society. Egalitarianism has its flaws, but its strengths are undeniable and the signs are that New Zealanders want it reasserted. A pity then that those who drive our present government don’t appear to understand, or accept, that.
In another shabby twist, on the eve of the All Blacks’ departure for the World Cup, Otago’s Brewer is declared unfit, Jones fit, Ginge Henderson returns to the team.
Brian Turner is a poet, athlete, and journalist.