A fly on the All Black wall, Chris Laidlaw

Inside the All Blacks
Robin McConnell
HarperCollins, $39.95
ISBN 1 86950 274 4

One of the hardest things to do in any book about the sociology of sport is to draw the line between breathless spectatorship and real analysis. Robin McConnell’s very comprehensive overview of the All Blacks as a public institution is a fascinating if rather stolidly written evocation of many aspects of the phenomenon that the New Zealand team has become; but it never quite draws that line.

McConnell was given what appeared to be the journalistic opportunity of the century, something for which New Zealand sports writers of the past would have walked barefoot over broken glass to secure: a right of access to the innermost sanctums, the locker room and the team meetings.

For lengthy periods between 1992 and 1995 he became a fly on the All Black wall, a silent witness to all that happened, with no apparent caveats as to what he might or mightn’t write about later. One suspects that he was granted this uniquely privileged access for the very reason that he wasn’t a journalist, such is the obsessive, ingrained suspicion of the media within the All Black citadel. The fact that Laurie Mains, the coach at the time, consented at all to any of this is surprising, but the product reveals that he had nothing to fear. For the most part Inside the All Blacks is little more than awe-struck hero-worshipping committed to paper.

McConnell isn’t a journalist. He is an academic and the book is the by-product of a doctoral thesis based on what sociologists call participant observation research. He ate, drank, travelled, trained, communed and socialised with the team. Along the way he recorded a wealth of information about behaviour, attitudes, worries, tensions, phobias, hates, hopes and ambitions. At the end of it, he put it all together in a thesis which presumably tested some sociological hypothesis with which, happily, he doesn’t burden the reader of the book.

It is here however that the essential weakness of the book is manifest. In the end, it is neither fish nor fowl. It isn’t a scholarly work. It would never have been a commercially viable product if it were. But nor is it a really compelling insight into the modern phenomenon of the All Blacks. It is a series of observations about the Mains era, surrounded by a lot of history that has already been written about extensively by specialists in the field. And because McConnell was taken in on trust by the All Blacks management, he has felt compelled, rightly, to respect the many confidences he was obviously privy to. As a result there are countless moments when he feels obliged to avoid using real names, and it is annoying to read about “Mr X” or “captain Z” just when the subject matter is becoming interesting.

Astonishingly, for a book that has appeared in 1998, there is virtually no reference whatsoever to the tumultuous outcome of the World Cup in 1995 and the very different John Hart era that has followed. At the very end is a short chapter, almost an afterthought, about the onrush of professionalism. Because of this, it misses a very large and very significant bus. Imagine a serious analysis of New Zealand politics issued in 1998 which stops soon of the ill-starred Bolger-Peters Coalition Government. Alas, that is what we have here. Instead of using his personal experience inside the complex movement that makes the All Black clock tick to project how it will tock in the future, McConnell wallows in the all-too-familiar history of the game. It makes for a frustrating read. It is as if all the commercial skulduggery that was obviously well under way while McConnell was with the team wasn’t happening. The prosaic last words of the final chapter, “Inside the All Blacks, the era of professional rugby has not yet obliterated tradition”, should have been the first words of the whole book. But then, perhaps writing such a book is a journalist’s job and this is not a journalist’s book.

Rugby’s curious relations with politics are obviously a matter of great interest to many of the people who would instinctively want to read a book like this. Unfortunately, we are not given much to go on. There are references to parliamentary receptions where politicians are portrayed as cynical manipulators of their links with famous players. But alongside these McConnell speaks almost in awe of Prime Ministerial blessings of the All Blacks. He even reproduces, as in it were some precious, hitherto undiscovered document, a formal letter to the All Blacks from John Banks, the Minister of Sport, which says the usual hackneyed things about playing for national pride; the sort of letter that is routinely sent from politicians to the team before and, if they win, after test matches.

Far and away the most successful chapters are the chronicles leading up to two particular test matches – in 1992 and 1993. Here, the simple art of observation works well. McConnell manages to evoke the enormous tension and stress that the All Blacks have to weather in such circumstances, particularly after having lost a match or two immediately beforehand and consequently dented the national ego.

Although he doesn’t explore this issue of personal and collective stress in any detail, McConnell lets the circumstances of the moment speak for themselves and the reader begins to appreciate why being an All Black can be so demanding and potentially damaging to the relatively frail temperaments of the chosen few. But, as elsewhere in the book, we find ourselves asking for more insight, more specific conclusions, more explanation as to the wider meaning of all this for a society that depends on the All Blacks for a significant slice of its identity. If this is sociology, then let’s have some findings.

McConnell also experiments with what seem to be intended as two personal case studies, one of Frank Bunce, an older battle-hardened performer, and the other of a novice, Mark Robinson. Each has a chapter devoted to questions and answers but the result is ponderous and unrevealing. It is the sort of stuff one might expect in a women’s magazine and it is a pity to see it juxtaposed with the much more persuasive material on match preparation.

Throughout, one cannot avoid the sneaking suspicion that Robin McConnell may have been the Margaret Mead of rugby research: in other words, he was told what the subject of the moment thought the researcher wanted to hear.

Rugby players, coaches, captains and administrators have never been noted for loquacity. Much of what they have said to McConnell is in the rich tradition of understatement and enforced modesty that the great New Zealand clobbering machine has perennially demanded. To make something of all this demands a certain amount of creative extrapolation and that is what the book lacks. If nothing else, McConnell has proved how hard it is to make a book like this really work. The writer has peeled one or two layers off the rugby onion but all we see beneath are yet more layers for someone else to peel.

Chris Laidlaw is a former All Black who writes a sports column for the Wellington Evening Post.

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Posted in Non-fiction, Review, Sociology, Sport
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