Being there, David Kirk

Change of Hart
Paul Thomas
Hodder Moa Beckett, $44.95
ISBN 1 86958 571 2

John Hart’s second book in four years, Change of Hart, had a hard act to follow. His first book, Straight from the Hart, written when he felt that his rugby coaching career might be past its peak, was a passionate account of a man and his philosophy. It started with his early days as player and club coach and recounted his odyssey through the trials and triumphs of a dramatically successful provincial coaching career and a desperately disappointing national coaching career. The Ranfurly Shield was won, a provincial superteam was built, and an All Blacks team was fashioned from the wings. Hart was a selector and assistant coach of the outstanding 1987 World Cup team. He seemed set to be crowned, but it was not to be. The context of disappointment gave the first book much of its interest. It is of course the tragedy that follows the hubris that makes for compelling reading. Lear’s words may have rung in Hart’s ears at the time he was looking for advancement: “Mend your speech a little,/Lest it may mar your fortunes. Well, he didn’t and he did mar his fortunes. But as for so many people, from writers and kings to sports coaches, it is the marred fortunes which create the opportunity for insight and ultimately real success.

So it was with John Hart. Cast into the wilderness he did what all ambitious men do when denied the opportunity to act: he reflected. He considered his progress, he weighed up his lemmings, he put himself in context and he hired Paul Thomas to write it down.

Straight from the Hart was laced with that sense of melancholy which comes from reflexion, from seeing the moment of your greatness flicker and begin to fade. There was no self-pity, nor any self-doubt come to that, but a realisation that sometimes destiny has a way of not contriving a happy ending.

Change of Hart picks up where the first book left us. It begins with the cock crowing three times. Hart challenges Laurie Mains for the top job in late 1994. He misses again, but this time he is able to speak of that failure with a lightness which comes of knowing the next chapter rights the wrong. He was not to be denied a fourth time, as everyone knows, and in 1995, on his 50th birthday, he was appointed All Blacks coach and conveyor of selectors. It is this journey which gives John Hart’s appointment and subsequent two years in the job (the subject of this book) its resonance. Without it, Change of Hart would be less interesting than it is.

Change of Hart covers just two years in the history of New Zealand rugby. Indeed 240 of the 309 pages are devoted to a single year: December 1995 to December 1996. The only other rugby book I know which covers such a short period of time is Warwick Roger’s portrayal of the 1956 Springbok series in New Zealand, Winter of Glory. Roger was able to distil powerful emotion from the winter of 1956, rendering it as part defining moment for a nation, part rite of passage for a little boy.

Change of Hart is a very different book. It is more in the vein of the traditional rugby biography we have come to expect at the tail-end of a successful playing career. A player retires in October and has a book on the shelves for Christmas. It covers his time growing up, his selection, his mates and his big matches. Heavy with the thrill of being there and the recollections of on-field moments, these books are essentially personal accounts of public events by those involved. As such, they are interesting for the “insider’s view” they give us. The genre has, however, suffered in the last few years from too many players whose careers have overlapped writing about the same matches and the same mates.

Hart’s new book is the first to cover the 1996-7 years, which gives it the benefit of being the first account, but it does, perhaps inevitably, cover many events in the style of a newspaper report. I say “perhaps inevitably” for two reasons. First, because 300 pages is a lot to churn out if detailed reportings of the matches, the planning, selections and travelling are not to comprise a large part of the story. And secondly, Hart is still there. He is the first All Blacks coach to write an account of his time half-way through his tenure. Now is not the time to be criticising too many people.

The book does pretty well over the twin hurdles of honest and open that we should see cleared by an insider’s version. The book is without doubt honest. Again written by Paul Thomas, it is nevertheless a faithful rendering of John Hart’s planning and selection techniques, his views on players and opposing coaches, and feelings about being there.

There is some revealing early material, covering the aborted WRC episode, none of which is new, save for a detailed account of Hart’s own position throughout. It is hard to escape the feeling that the point of all the detail in this area is to remove any misconceptions about his batting for both sides. He does this clearly and persuasively. He was aware of the difficult situation he was putting himself in as he met with WRC top brass early on in the episode. Wanting to back the winner, but unsure which it should be until he understood the two positions, he was careful not to sign confidentiality agreements and the like that would have committed him to one camp at the expense of the other. His position is a convincing one: that he believed the WRC had to work with the national bodies and that once the Murdoch money arrived the approach was redundant.

The main subject of the book is the All Blacks Test series against the Springboks in 1996. The elusive series win in South Africa. The final unconquered peak. The building tension as the tour progresses is well captured by Paul Thomas. The psychological challenges of the four-Test series shape the physical effort.

The first Test presents a strange conundrum. The match is not part of the series, the Tri- Series is already won, and the thought of winning all four Tests is almost too much. The second Test, the first of the series proper, is crucial. The All Blacks have never won at Kings Park in Durban. A loss in Durban means needing to win two in a row at altitude, in the heart of Afrikaner country. The match is won handsomely although not without anxious moments.

And now it’s all or nothing. The team is adamant they do not want to be playing for the series at Ellis Park in the third. The second Test is a huge examination of nerve and grit. Outplayed for long periods and well behind, the team never loses focus on the long grind that is winning Test matches. Mistakes are reduced, chances are taken, two tries before half-time suddenly turn things around. And then the final minutes. The Springboks battering away at the line, every muscle and sinew screaming. The tackles keep coming, the bodies keep piling up, and the line stays intact. The merciful release of the final whistle is captured in a photograph.

There is an element of history in all sports books. In the stream of what is usually recorded as history the events are trivial, but they have an emotional content for the participants which can make for absorbing reading. Recorded history is a three-step. It is a waltz of events, people and ideas. Sports books are mostly dominated by events. The events are performed by names we know but people we do not. Ideas are conspicuously absent. The real test of a sports book as history is that it should succeed in fusing insights about the people who shape the events with the ideas which define the context of the times. Change of Hart does not attempt this difficult task.

However, some of Hart’s ideas on the new world of professional rugby make for a thought-provoking interlude. In many ways this book is a child of the professional era. It would not have been written had professional rugby not arrived at the end of 1995. The book gives Hart’s opinions on the professional game from creating a global structure to involve the Northern and Southern Hemispheres to the individual needs of players in this brave new world. John Hart’s final vision for the All Blacks is a dual commercial/sporting one. He wants to make the team a top global sports brand.

Hart has reached the top, and this book records the first two glorious years of his stay. His path has not been easy. He is clearly revelling in the view and so he should. He is hardly standing there admiring it but using the vantage to create a world around him which is, the records tell us, good for the All Blacks and good for New Zealand rugby.

There will be a third John Hart book. It is tempting to extrapolate from the last two years and predict it will come after the 1999 World Cup and will record a successful campaign and a second victory, but that is to tempt Fate.

That Hart will want more from his rugby career than a further two years’ coaching the All Blacks we can be sure. He has been given the opportunity as the first All Blacks coach in the professional era to be a father to the new system. His corporate background and passion for rugby have served him and the game well. He is poised to go on to still greater triumphs. He has just two things to look out for: hubris and a thankless child.

David Kirk is a former captain of the All Blacks.

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