Authorised incompleteness, David Grant

Mike Brewer: The Authorised Biography
Mike Brewer (with Phil Gifford)
Rugby Publishers
ISBN 0908630 530

New Zealand blokes are disciples of ritual. Most Saturday afternoons I happily participate in one myself. Following an hour or two chasing a petulant black ball around a squash court and raising a decent sweat, men of the masters’ (as in older) group of the Thorndon Club retire to the comfy seats to watch the footy on the box and expostulate with each other as to the merits or otherwise of the teams and players on view.

This winter, All Black and 1995 Canterbury captain Mike Brewer copped more than his fair share of comment. “Thinks about the game ‑ knows where to link,” ventures Laurie Price, a by no means knavish second five-eighths for Marist‑St Pats in his day. “Nah, too old, too slow,” responds Bob Dibley, Lion Brown froth drooping off the end of his expansive moustache. “Still got the nouse,” proffers grizzled veteran Roy Savage, supping on a dark. “As long as Mains is in charge, Brewer will be there. That’s the truth of it,” I retort in half‑agreement with Dibley. “Play for Wellington, does he?” demurs Clive Lewis, quietest of the bunch and old‑fashioned provincialist. “Great ad,” interrupts Chris Scanlan, peering in mock‑shock at the grim nurse with the needle in her hand the size of an outsize parsnip.

This scene is not atypical. It is replicated every week in similar watering holes up and down the country, whether it be in bars, sports clubs or private lounges. Taking the team, player or referee to task ‑ more so, I suggest, than delivering fulsome praise ‑ is as indelibly etched into our sporting culture as is participation in the game itself. The ever-present publication of biographical or autobiographical “life-stories”‘ of these men, our most public of stars, is the natural corollary of this process. Mike Brewer’s autobiographical tome Mike Brewer: The Authorised Biography co-written by Christchurch commentator and humorist Phil Gifford is the latest in a long line in a books on rugby players stretching back to Terry McLean’s biography of Bob Scott in 1955, although, as I write and as if to indicate the ephemeral nature of the business, Brewer’s book has just been superseded by Zinny, a biography of Zinzan Brooke, Alex Veysey’s latest addition to the ranks.

Much has happened in 1995, the most fascinating and contentious year in our rugby history. To All Black superstardom from Wesley College Methodism, that most peaceful of religions, has come Jonah Lomu, a super-fast, determined brute of a just graduated post-adolescent ‑ and likely to become the world’s greatest-ever wing three-quarter with an international fan club that could rival larger-than-life English soccer star “Gazza” Gascoigne. At the rugby’s third World Cup in May and June this year Lomu led the New Zealand charge that demolished the arrogant English before narrowly falling to the Afrikaner beast amid unhappy allegations of food‑poisoning.

At the same time, this year has seen the most agreeable continuance of rugby’s new style, best described as the “expansive” game. Interspersed with the traditional lineouts, scrums, rucks and mauls, the best teams collectively asserted their presence on the field. Fusions of backs and forwards ran, feinted, accelerated, created half‑breaks, dropped goals, revealed angles, twisted, passed ‑ underhand or overhead by cut-out, back-flip or long spiral. Gone, for the most part, was the 10-man game where the three key players ‑ lock, half-back and first five-eighth ‑ respectively won the ball in the lineout, passed it and kicked it into touch for territorial gain. At last, also, the New Zealand Rugby Football Union has seemed to have got it right with its national provincial championship competition. The teams are relatively even, the rugby is spirited, zealous crowds attend and the finals formula sees the best in each division play off for the championship. Whether the proposed IPC competition with its mixed-provincial teams can garner the same public nourishment next year is yet to be seen.

But all this has palled into relative insignificance alongside the sudden explosion of player professionalism. Its evolvement and the ructions it caused, dominated the minds and thoughts of the game’s aficionados for much of the second half of the year, in particular. For generations, the game was ‑ and then pretended to be ‑ the last international bastion of amateurism, kept in train by the increasingly archaic presence of the London-based International Rugby Board redolent with fading images of public schoolboy types for whom the word “progress” was anathema to commonsense. But their hold on the international game had become increasingly tenuous. Generous player payments have been a way of life in France and Italy for years. Japanese firms have paid megabucks to attract New Zealand player-coaches and local internationals had long “invested” financial beneficence into “trusts” for future use.

This year the hypocrisy has gone with a vengeance. The increasing desertion of top players to the lure of rugby league’s monetary enticements and the competing elements of two determined media moguls has suddenly transformed top‑line rugby from a low‑grade quasi-professional game into a high-stakes international arena where the best would be paid on star quality. Even before they burst on the scene the All Blacks had already had a taste of professionalism when they signed deals last October of around $80,000 to take them through to this year’s second Bledisloe Cup against Australia. Others earned more through their work with All Black Promotions.

The two protagonists, both greedily eyeing massive profits exposing the game on international television as entertainment, were both Australians. Kerry Packer, a league man at heart, inspired the World Rugby Corporation, an ambitious concept with an international provincial championship that straddled the globe. Rewards for the best were mind-boggling ‑ Lomu and a handful of others were offered $375,000 and more a year. Packer very nearly succeeded. After this year’s Bledisloe Cup match against Australia 23 of the 26 All Blacks reportedly signed with the WRC and coach Laurie Mains was enthusiastic about a globally-marketed game.

But Rupert Murdoch had been in first, signing with the NZRFU a deal worth $828 million over 10 years for television rights to southern hemisphere rugby. Confronted with Packer’s more generous bid, the rugby union was forced to up the ante. Its negotiator, Jock Hobbs, offered substantially more largesse (although not as much as Packer) and appealed to the players’ patriotism and sense of honour as he fought to hang on the game’s traditions. His pitch was persuasive and the players agonised. Finally, Jeff Wilson and Josh Kronfeld broke ranks and signed with the union. The other All Blacks and leading provincial players gradually fell in behind. It means that for a season the best internationals receive some $250,000, others less and first division provincial players around $60,000.

Where was Mike Brewer in all of this? Apparently at the forefront. It was he and captain Sean Fitzpatrick who were initially approached by the WRC after the World Cup final in South Africa as Packer realised it had to have players on board before cutting a deal with the rugby infrastructure. It was they who decided to bring in Mains to liaise on behalf of the players between the WRC and the union which later led him to face accusations ‑ false as it transpired ‑ that he was working as an agent for Packer. Brewer had much sympathy for the WRC concept and slated the union head office mentality where every decision had to be taken back to its council and finally agreed to by people who had no professional experience in making decisions not in the best interests of the players.

But you won’t find this in the Authorised Biography. Like many books of this genre it was written too soon, before the player had finished with the game. This is a primary difficulty with rugby biographies. Publishers eye profitability in the marketplace and after a fellow has retired he may not be so “hot” as he was while still in the midst of the action. Writers are often paid fat fees to catch the sportsman at the peak of his powers. Pat Booth’s ghost-written book on Wilson last year when he was just starting out on what all rugby pundits hope will be a long and successful All Black career has been the most ridiculous manifestation of this attitude so far. So this info on Brewer is gleaned from a magazine article and a frank interview he gave on Australian television some months ago. This means that his penultimate chapter, “To Win the Future” has been made almost redundant by subsequent events. The World Cup saga feels as though it has been tagged on to the end with no reflection. In my opinion, this publication is only half-finished.

These books are largely formulaic. In his biography Brewer discusses issues that are similar to the plethora of All Black biographies and autobiographies that have hit the stands since Alex Veysey’s 1974 epic on Colin Meads which sold some 65,000 copies ‑ up there with the collective works of Alison Holst and far in excess of Alan Duff. He talks of his first international game with the “Baby” Blacks against France in 1986, experiences on subsequent All Black tours, encounters captaining Otago and later Canterbury, his injuries (and he has had a shocking run, one of which led to his unfortunate withdrawal from the 1991 World Cup at the peak of his playing powers), comments on his fellow players and coaches (often insightful in Brewer’s case), comments on the opposition, comments from others on Brewer (he certainly commanded respect, none more so than from Mains who wanted him to captain the All Blacks right through his reign as coach), a sketch of his early life and meeting his future wife on tour.

As a rugby buff, I did find a handful of treats and surprises ‑ Gary Knight’s most unorthodox preparation for a big match, Brewer’s distaste for John Hart’s coaching style, the “plague of selfishness” which ate into the All Blacks from 1990 to 1992, a strong reaffirmation that the diabolical decision to send Grizz Wyllie and John Hart as co-coaches of the 1991 World Cup squad split the team and made losing to Australia in the semi-final almost inevitable. (As Brewer wrote: “In blunt terms, Harty saw Grizz as a bumbling drunk and Grizz saw Harty as a jumped-up little shit”) and the 1985 Otago team’s quick acceptance of him as their young “scarfie” captain at the very tender age of 21.

The writing is simple and straightforward and at times Brewer does not pull any punches. He is intelligent and a natural leader of players and this is conveyed without any sense of one-upmanship or inflated ego. Gifford’s role is an indirect one so we are spared that excruciating hagiography that some sycophantic sports biographers ply us with in their stories. While rugby is a physical game full of its own sets of hierarchical traditions (senior players claiming the back seats of buses to prove their “rite of passage” has always seemed to me a childlike predisposition), Brewer’s book is generally free of the macho imagery that also can be ingratiating.

(When Trevor McKewen called his book detailing the careers of well-known All Black and league props Real Men Wear Black he truly meant it.) I also respect Brewer as the only 1995 All Black who was not tempted by the massive bounty on offer, by deciding to retire after the World Cup.

But beyond its incompleteness, the book does have some other frustrations. His early life is very briefly outlined so there is no real insight into the background influences that encouraged him to play rugby at the highest level. Nor is there a discussion of the challenges of his student and professional life which may have given a better understanding as to why he was such a commanding on-field leader. The myriad of political and administration issues that have impacted on the players’ lives, more particularly in the last 10 years, is profiled but not in any depth. The Authorised Biography is a quick and mostly enjoyable read but not nearly as satisfying as my two favourites of this genre, Chris Laidlaw’s acerbic and hard-hitting Mud In Your Eye and Graham Mourie’s detailed and frank 1982 autobiography, ghost-written by Ron Palenski who, along with Alex Veysey, is the best in the business.

David Grant is a Wellington social historian and former senior rugby player.

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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Review, Sport
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