The richness of New Zealand sports writing, Ron Palenski

Terry McLean, who professes to dislike being known as the doyen of New Zealand sports writing but who I suspect really is quite flattered by it, often tells a tale of confrontation with a career-driven woman journalist in South Africa. Discussing the political ramifications of a sports tour there in 1976, she turned on him with scorn and with as much asperity in her voice as she could muster, declared to McLean: ‘But of course, you’re just a sports reporter’.

McLean, as quick witted as ever and probably quicker witted than her, responded, ‘Guilty, your honour’.

Sports writers, either journalists with newspapers or radio or television, or those who eke out a living actually writing sports books, are used to such deprecating remarks. So were Ring Lardner, Ernest Hemingway and Paul Gallico, and any number of other acknowledged fine writers who also made a name in sport. If you write about sport, so the belief goes, you must be somehow deficient as a writer, that you do it more for boyish (or girlish) enthusiasm than for any more noble motivation. We are used to this collective pigeon-holing and the days of sensitivity are long gone … we can now confront the deprecators with a sneer and say, ‘Yes, but how many copies of your last book were sold?’ It’s a pretty cheap retort though because as any author and any discerning reader, but few publishers, understand, it’s the quality of a book that matters and not its sales. If everyone who writes books did so to make millions (impossible in New Zealand anyway), there’d be precious few books published and we’d all read like Arthur Haley.

Most people in New Zealand, even publishers and booksellers, when they think about sports books would think about hagiographies of some of the sports stars or of dry-as-dust histories that serve a purpose, but an extremely limited one. They wouldn’t think in terms of literature or of contributions to New Zealand publishing. Sports books have, it is true, made the finalists for awards such as the Wattie but have never won it and are never likely to. It’s not very fashionable, trendy or politically correct to write a sports book.

Although sports books in New Zealand since the first in 1877 (a small monograph of a Dunedin rugby visit to Auckland) have by and large been either biographical, historical or tour books, there have been classics and I hope there will continue to be. One that comes to mind, and it’s probably better known in literary than in sporting circles, is A P Gaskell’s The Big Game, a short story about the buildup to a Dunedin rugby club final in the days rugby grounds were packed for club matches and the interest was as intense as it is now for any international match. But if you asked the average sports follower to list favourite sports writers, Gaskell’s name would probably not be among them. Neither would that of John Mulgan, whose Report On Experience contained some of the finest words written on rugby to be found anywhere. Written in Greece towards the end of the Second World War, Mulgan reflected on his growing up in New Zealand and spoke of how the New Zealander’s attitude to games stood them in such good stead in wartime.

McLean is probably the best-known sports writer in New Zealand and has often also been the best. His books on tours, from his first about Bob Stuart’s All Blacks in Britain in 1953-54, through the fifties, sixties and seventies were required reading for rugby followers and it was only the advent of live telecasts that saw them off. The prolific McLean also wrote player biographies (Bob Scott, George Nepia), a collection of biographies of early players (Rugby Legends), a history of New Zealand sport (Silver Fern) and a collection of his best work, which included a surprising amount of non-sport material, including a short story.

Sports writing in New Zealand has been dominated by rugby throughout this century; in fact for much of it books on any other sports were rare indeed. It’s only in the last fifteen or twenty years that cricket books have been published regularly (there were early exceptions such as T W Reese’s two-volume New Zealand Cricket or tour books such as O S Hintz’s The New Zealanders in England (1931) or Alan Mitchell’s Cricket Companions (1949). But while publishers found a market for books on other sports, it was not to the exclusion of rugby. In fact, that area increased rapidly after the mammoth sales of Colin Meads’s All Black in 1974. Its 60,000, still the highest for a New Zealand sports book, led to increased interest in player biographies to the extent that an All Black now is not truly of the highest status unless he caps his career with a book (many of them, the books, not the players, eminently forgettable).

Rugby remains a dominant first in the market, cricket a distant second and the rest occasionally stagger into third place. One writer who deserves, but is seldom accorded, the status of McLean is one of his protégés at the New Zealand Herald, Norman Harris. He was with the Herald during the halcyon track and field days of Peter Snell and Murray Halberg, and combined a love of the sport with some fine writing, some of it reportage, some biographical and one even autobiographical (self-deprecatingly entitled Champion of Nothing)Perhaps Harris’s finest work was The Legend of Lovelock, the first biography of Jack Lovelock, the 1936 Olympic 1500-metres champion. This enigmatic athlete so intrigued a distinctly non-sporting writer, James McNeish, that an interest became an obsession and he produced Lovelock, more fiction than fact but still a notable New Zealand sports book. Another ‘mainstream’ writer, to use a label, who has also shown a flair for sports is Maurice Shadbolt, who wrote a fine essay on Halberg in his Love and Legend (1976).

For the size of the market and the population, sports writing, by both its practitioners and its subjects, is comparatively as diverse in New Zealand as anywhere else and better in many places.

There is a richness in New Zealand sports writing, just as there is in other forms of writing in New Zealand, and among these are two by rugby players written nearly 90 years ago that remain as fascinating and in parts as valid today as they were when first published. One is The Art of Rugby Football, written by one of the most seminal men in the game, Tom Ellison, and the other The Complete Rugby Footballer by two of the most renowned of the original All Blacks: captain Dave Gallaher and vice-captain Billy Stead. Both lucidly argue points that are still being debated today. Interestingly enough, Ellison and Stead were both Maori, and in how many other fields of interest were Maori not only writing books at the turn of the century, but books that are as much quoted today as they were then.


Ron Palenski is a journalist who has written widely on sport. He is Assistant Editor of the ‘Dominion Sunday Times’.


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