Reliable and comforting benchmark, David Grant

The Game of Our Lives
Finlay MacDonald
Viking, $39.95,
IBSN 0 670 86907 4

For rugby aficionados 1996 has been a remarkable year. In the early part of the season, provincial conglomerates under names more reminiscent of those belonging to American baseball or basketball teams — Chiefs, Highlanders et al — played out a thrilling series against provincial teams from Australia and South Africa in a suitably hyped-up series called the “Super 12”. It was a marketers dream. Commentators grasped for such over-the-top terms as “magical”, “brilliant” and “bewildering” as they tried to reflect the open, flowing attacking styles that all teams, even the South Africans, brought to the competition. It was “new age” men playing “new age” rugby and the capitalists behind the Murdoch television revolution who funded the series and paid these new professionals were suitably delighted.

Then the All Blacks overcame the most gruelling of itineraries to win both a tri-series of tests against Australia and South Africa and then, for the first time in the country’s history, overcame South Africa in a test series in South Africa. Fred Allen, captain of the 1949 test team which lost all four tests and under “everyday” circumstances a sober man devoid of hyperbole, wept at the news. Allen, of course, was not privy to two distinct advantages John Hart’s All Blacks enjoyed in 1996 — a full range of Maori and Polynesian talent and neutral referees.

Third, and with some irony, as the wealthier unions had been luring talent from the provinces with “ inducements”  for years, Taranaki, a heartland union with long tradition, oodles of pride but little money, lifted the Ranfurly Shield off the “mighty Auks”, albeit when many of the top-line Auckland team were away in South Africa. For a brief period, there was rerun of the 1950s when rugby was king, as cheering crowds thronged New Plymouth streets in adoration of their new heroes and packed the local Rugby Park — and trees and rooftops beyond — to witness the team repel its first challenge from the much vaunted North Harbour.

Thus the new and the old have come together in a delightful way. The new dawn of professionalism, making it incumbent upon coaches and players to play the game with style and panache to be able to please both sponsors and viewers of an international television audience, has intertwined with the re-emergence of the passion associated with traditional Ranfurly Shield contests of yesteryear. It is a beguiling mix. This keen observer, for one, is here to stay.

There was a fourth event this year this year — the June/July production of George Andrew’s history of rugby television documentary, The Game of Our Lives, and the synchronous publication of Finlay MacDonald’s book of the same name, based on the series. The book’s assessment begins with a tale. Ten years ago, when I was teaching in the King Country, I met Colin Meads, a mythical figure of heroic proportions from my adolescence, and inquired of him whether his arm was better. He eyed me querously before a slow smile of recognition dawned across his grizzled face. Yep, it was pretty good now, he drawled, partly in pique at the cheekiness of the interloper.

The arm to which I refer was the one Pinetree broke during a game in the 1970 All Black tour to South Africa. That did not stop him playing in a test match. Still etched clearly in my memory is the image of the arm’s x-ray displayed, like a badge of courage, across the front page of the nation’s newspapers. It was ridiculous, of course, that Meads play test match rugby with such a serious injury. But Meads was “the greatest lock in the world”, as tough as teak, and the thought of him not confronting the country’s bitterest foes in the most important contest of all was anathema to team management, his colleagues, his fans and probably Meads himself.

This anecdote reflects a broader truth however — of rugby the “man’s” game, the sport that in the eyes of many, men in particular, most clearly reflects long-held perceptions of national identity — strength, egalitarianism, fairness, adversity under pressure, teamwork, victory and manifestations of community, provincial and national pride and achievement. Only war has produced similar canons and the two are not unconnected.

Indeed, MacDonald draws adroitly upon them. There are two levels of comparison, both extraordinary. Firstly are the images — the haka, the references to “them” — the opposition or enemy, the “tactics”, “strategies” and “teamwork”, the preoccupation with “winning”, the physicality, the violence. As Tom Ellison, an early “prince” of the game, wrote in his seminal work, The Art Of Rugby Football, in 1888, rugby is a “soldier-making game”. Indeed, the playing of rugby with its teamwork and tactics was used as a training strategy for bored soldiers in all wars. The second manifestation is seen in the tales of whole teams enlisting, fighting and dying together in war and being eulogised by surviving team mates long after battle is done. In retrospect, it is no coincidence that my early heroes were soldiers and All Blacks.

It is important to state at this juncture that I cannot be a dispassionate reviewer. I grew up with the game from the age of 5. There is family background. My father played representative rugby for four provinces, captaining Southland through the 1930s depression years, and had been touted as a likely prospect for Jack Manchester’s 1935 All Blacks to Great Britain before he retired early with a serious knee injury. At my schools in Invercargill through the 1950s and 60s only rugby was played by “real boys” . Wimps read and played chess. Even boys who played soccer and hockey, games played with greater panache and skill at the highest level, were looked at suspiciously. I read rugby books, collected Saturday programmes and eagerly absorbed statistics such as the size of Tiny Hill’s massive boots. This childhood obsession found its greatest expression within first 15 culture with its camaraderie, enforced aggression, dedication, status and confidence it gave me as a shy teenager. It dominated our lives. The team played the first 15s from traditional boys schools in other towns, not the local schools. As a result, in fawning obeisance of Anglo-centrism, we assumed the arrogant superiority — way beyond rugby — of an English grammar school over the “unfortunate secondary moderns”.

MacDonald’s early chapters give both the background, and, in some respects, historical justification to this obsession. The first two parts, “Home and Way” and “Fathers and Sons”, encompassing the story from the game’s beginnings in this country in the 1870s (although different versions of “rugby” had been played by miners in the 1860s gold rush) to the 1950s, reinforced rather than dented my belief about the game’s place in our mostly male culture of a country embraced by its myths and rituals, loving or hating it but unable, by its sheer ubiquitousness, to ignore it.

I learned more that made sense. The historical connection between rugby and work — teamwork, discipline, stopping when the whistle goes. I began to understood the nature of rugby being a force for social control in schools, the need to channel adolescent machismo into “positive” assertion. Society has moved on, dramatically, but some rites of passage do not change. In this book, I read, with some foreboding, that today rugby “as war” is played out in contests between the first 15s of Te Aute and St Stephens, (and the two Wellington St Pats), with the same tribal intensity as it ever was. I wonder whether this notion of rugby as the all-inclusive God is a prerogative of the school and its culture, or of the players themselves. It is interesting that many first 15 players “retire” after these schoolboy excursions, as I did temporarily in the mid-1960s. Such preoccupation with rugby in 1996 confers little credit on these schools if you believe, as I do, that sound education must reflect the mores of today’s society in all of its complexities, joys and responsibilities.

There is much to applaud in these first chapters. MacDonald convincingly evokes rugby’s egalitarian evolution, which is its most distinctive difference from Mother England’s apron strings. The game, as he sees it, becomes a primary means of articulating a new colonial identity at variance with the public school ethos which did not transfer perfectly to New Zealand with its more rugged terrain and lack of leisured middle and upper classes. He records the importance of the 1888 Native tour on the game’s evolvement and acceptance; the imperialist incursions of Richard John Seddon, taking advantage of the idolatry heaped upon the successful 1905 tourists, (politics and sport have always mixed), the “war” and “work” connections already mentioned, the development of mateship rituals and the probing into the wherefores of our “greats”, George Nepia and Bert Cooke, the former assessed by sports historian Len Richardson as the country’s first genuine sporting hero.

Such expressions of unbridled fervour reached their apotheosis during the 1950s, where the national passion for rugby became a focus of pleasure for the baby boomers and their parents, no matter that the game itself was dull, forward-dominated and kick-obsessed. This was the “Cold War” period, but as coach Tupper articulates in Greg McGee’s superb play, Foreskin’s Lament, this was just as likely to mean “the front row upsets of Skinner and Bekker” than the conventional geopolitics of the time.

The latter chapters evoke a different tone, a promenade of that most important liaison of all — the rugby relationship between New Zealand and South Africa, the two countries where rugby is “lived”, not merely played. When we tangled with this most important adversary, rugby was more than just a game; these contests carried the implicit imprimatur of the entire nation. Since 1921, these have been the real battles both on the field and off it as generations of New Zealanders have witnessed the mixture of venality and paternalism which saw the NZRFU always acquiesce to South African demands that no Maoris be allowed to tour the country.

This policy has had ramifications on different levels, as MacDonald clearly attests. Since New Zealand world war I veteran, pre-war All Black and gifted loose forward Ranji Wilson was denied entry into South Africa because he was “coloured” (he was part West Indian), a whole host of gifted Maori players (Nepia, Jimmy Mill, J B Smith, Vince Bevan among them) have been cruelly denied the opportunity to test their skills against the deadliest foe. Paternalism was not a prerogative of South Africans. In 1960, Tom Pearce, manager of the All Blacks on the forthcoming tour of the republic, stated at the farewell function at Parliament that the decision not to take Maori players “sprang only from love of the Maoris, these gentle people. We wouldn’t hurt them in the least”. They went despite knowledge of the Sharpeville massacres and a 160,000-signature petition in protest.

The wheels moved slowly as a maturing society increasingly isolated views such as Pearce’s. Four All Blacks were allowed to tour in 1970 as “honorary whites”, that is, as long as they were “not too black”, but only after a change of government in South Africa and a “No Maoris No Tour” movement that was by now broad and powerful enough to include the conservative press. It was not enough. The NZRFU sanctioned the 1981 South Africa tour only after intense controversy. Muldoon’s cynical decision not to call off the tour (as Norman Kirk had done in 1973) for perceived electoral advantage in the provinces split the country as no issue has done before or since. Nineteen-eighty-one burst a boil on the New Zealand psyche. Some disparate families are still undergoing a healing process.

Despite the predictions of some, rugby has today reasserted its pre-eminence among New Zealand sports. There are fundamental changes that have been revolutionary in a historical context. Gone is the macho, unthinking, retributive aggression and stoicism that was the hallmark of All Black play — and which was the exemplar of male New Zealand culture. In comes the flair, the displays of emotion, the ability to be individual within the team construct, a new time, as McGee writes, where coaches’ “hugs” are fraternal, not fearsome. In this, rugby catches up with the rest of the professional sporting world. It is fine to try new moves. Do it with passion and smile, even if it fails. No recriminations.

Contiguously there is a new and welcome emphasis on sportsmanship; playing the ball, not the man. Television advertisements implore such young miscreants to be ostracised. This is far removed from the gladitorial contests of the 1950s and 1960s when even boys of 7 and 8 years old, were, as often as not, sent on to the field to “kill” the opposition.

MacDonald did not set out to write a tour-de-force. This is a book which accompanies a television programme — a social history of New Zealand through rugby, enlivened by a medley of anecdotes, interspersed with quotes from experts (there were too many of these; some interrupted rather than enlivened the flow) and modern stories of clubs, players and games — the good, the bad and the ugly. MacDonald talks of rugby as a metaphor — defining and describing the good and bad in New Zealand society. Look hard at rugby’s arcane rituals, he suggests, and a picture does emerge as who we were and why we are who we are. Maybe its a truism to say that a national game is a clue is its national soul.

MacDonald succeeds in articulating and exploring the conception that rugby traverses peace and war, depression and social revolution as the one ever reliable and comforting benchmark of national distinctiveness and stability. It has served, whether New Zealanders like it or not, as both a unifying force among race, class (and to a lesser extent, religion) and as an expression — for 120 years — of community, provincial and national pride and identity. It survived the travails of 1981, which was the most severe challenge to its hegemony; it has most recently been dragged into the modern era, challenged by the competition of the hoopla of league and demands of international television, reasserted itself as the prime recreation upon which all New Zealanders, willingly or otherwise, are implacably embroiled.

He is less successful in destroying the myth of the game’s universal acceptance. Myth over time becomes an elaborate construction of half-truth, memory, sentiment and embellishment but MacDonald does not explore in depth the darker side of rugby where women, for example, hate the game, either in itself for its macho haughtiness, or because it can take their menfolk away for long periods from family and home. That many women and some men despise rugby and what it represents was brought home graphically to me as I mounted the battlements in 1981 only to find many of my fellow protesters and platoon commanders (more war imagery) seemed to be more obsessed, to my chagrin, with with their abhorrence of the game (and men, in some cases) than they were with South Africa’s apartheid policies and its reflection in Afrikaaner rugby arrogance, which I understood was the point of the exercise.

The book is too celebratory. More could have been made of the more obnoxious rituals that have pervaded the game and are still with us. Some spring immediately to mind; players “brown-eying” in bus windows, indulging in drunken mistreatment post-match or parents mindlessly abusing their sons on Saturday morning sidelines. The latter I do not understand. Like many New Zealanders’ driving habits, it probably needs psychological explanation or sociological analysis.

In defence of MacDonald, these omissions were probably outside the parameters of his task as a written concomitant to a very good television series. The excess intrusion of quotes notwithstanding, The Game of Our Lives was a joy to read. MacDonald writes eloquently and has grasped the essence of the historical importance of the game and the way in which it has helped to define and shape our national identity. Len Richardson is writing a  more expansive social history of rugby in New Zealand. I look forward to his tome to flesh out the bones.


David Grant is a Wellington social historian who played rugby from the under-6s to senior representative level.

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Posted in Non-fiction, Review, Sport
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