If sport is indeed the opium of the masses then New Zealand has been on an awfully long trip. For more than a century sport has filled the Kiwi consciousness almost to bursting point, giving pride, pleasure and pain aplenty to a population which decided very early on that physical pursuits should be given priority over contemplation.
It was a contest that was won and lost in the pioneer urge to assert itself over the challenges of nature, and sport simply extended the workplace ethic of the day into the domain of leisure. By the end of the last century sport in general and rugby in particular had established themselves as perhaps the defining point for the new society. It might have been a borrowed suit but it fitted our nationalism very nicely. As the newspaper Zealandia, the mouthpiece of the opiated masses, pronounced in 1899 with ill-disguised relief: “There is now no danger of New Zealand rearing a nation of milksops, effeminate fops and luxurious dandies …’’
The die was cast. Those who favoured the more aesthetic pursuits were steadily marginalised and became steadily more contemptuous of the muddied oafishness of sport. And we’ve never really looked back. “Culture” in the classical sense has never been particularly compatible with sport. They have been like two divergent streams, each with the same headwaters and each destined for the same sea but with little in the way of confluence along the way. Each has come to cater for a particular clientele and each has always preserved more than a faint distaste for the other. The intellectual v the physical; the aesthetic v the prosaic; the Chardonnay v the Lion Red.
Rugby was war minus the shooting. It served as an admirable substitute when war ended. Often, they overlapped. New Zealanders and South Africans first met on the rugby field during a pause in the fighting during the Anglo-South African war. According to reports the atmosphere was relatively cordial. Perhaps already there was a subliminal sense among the players that they had rather more in common than they had thought. New Zealand Army teams took on all comers during both world wars. The experiences provided valuable reassurance of New Zealand’s fighting spirit after some of the demoralising setbacks suffered by Allied troops in such arenas as Gallipoli and Crete.
War and sport are the only means by which the people of one community can match themselves physically against another. This goes some way towards explaining the almost transcendent importance of winning. In 1905 the first great expression of our point of difference was the unexpectedly successful All Black visit to the United Kingdom. When the team returned to Auckland, Prime Minister Seddon, ever the one for the photo opportunity, personally escorted the players off the ship. Organised sport was up and running and had obviously triumphed over the arts as a force for nation-building.
In 1925, when the second great odyssey to Britain was over and the “Invincibles” returned to Wellington, they were greeted by an ecstatic Head of the Harbour Board who declared that the All Blacks were “the greatest asset New Zealand has had, excepting the Expeditionary Forces”. At the time there was no way of offering higher praise.
The wonder is that we have been able to keep it up, particularly since the government, unlike its counterparts in many other countries, has shown great reluctance to subsidise winners and potential winners. Not for us the elaborate Institutes of Sport absorbing taxpayer dollars by the multi-million. Instead, we rely on tradition, a sense of improvisation and a curious inner strength that is born of a people who come in from the wilderness to pit their ability against the world’s best and, more often than our numbers would suggest, manage to pull off minor miracles.
The secret of most of New Zealand’s success this century has been a simplicity of approach, a focus on essentials and an innate self-belief by individuals who have had to make it on the basis of their own personal effort. Jack Lovelock set the pattern at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, sparking a romantic tradition with a single athletic performance that came as close to perfection as anything in sport before or since. Ed Hillary reinforced this belief in the fact that anything is possible if you have mental strength and physical resilience.
These monumental achievements have generated self-belief in many others and have compounded sporting success in more recent times to the point where New Zealanders know that they can take on the world and win. New Zealand became accustomed to bagging a disproportionate share of the international honours in such sports as middle-distance running, rowing, sailing, windsurfing, boxing, weightlifting, showjumping and in a variety of other, less publicised sports. World champions began to pop up in the most unlikely of sports.
But even the heroics of Lovelock, Snell, Walker, Todd, Ferguson and women like Yvette Williams, Susan Devoy and Beatrice Faumuina – and all the others who stood up on the rostrum and collected medals – could only ever provide temporary diversions from the one great sporting preoccupation of the century: rugby. In spite of decades of political buffeting and at times the spectacular incompetence of those who ran it, this remarkable game has, if anything, a firmer hold on the national psyche at the end of the century than it did at the beginning. It does so because we need it. There is still no more telling barometer of the average Kiwi’s sense of well-being than the fortunes of the All Blacks. For better or for worse, the national personality has been caught up in the chain that drives this singular game.
But while the game itself might be almost identical to that still seen in the fractured flickers of old tours and old tests, its organisation has altered dramatically. It is no longer a pastime. Today it is practised for money; a great deal of money if you happen to reach the top tier. The All Blacks are no longer a team. They are a brand that is proving irresistibly attractive to international sponsors who can see the marketing power in the colour black. The players who, barely a decade ago, enjoyed none of the trappings of full-on professionalism, are surrounded by an ever-growing phalanx of coaches, managers, media advisers, counsellors, psychologists, motivational experts, doctors of varying specialty and, of course, accountants. They are contractually bound to do this or not say that. They are on an endless conveyor belt from place to place, signing merchandise, posing for photographs, making television commercials and acting out the part as “brand ambassadors” for Philips, Adidas, or the ubiquitous purveyors of alcohol.
But consistent success brings with it the usual dose of irritation and envy among those whose role it seems perennially to be the All Blacks’ detractors. The foreign media, especially in Britain, have developed a permanent grudge against All Black arrogance and aloofness. They have been irrationally critical of the unfettered commercialism of the All Blacks while they have scrambled themselves to grab a share of the same action. They have never been able to accept that day in, day out our players have simply been better than theirs – better prepared physically, mentally harder and with more basic skills honed in the most competitive market in the world, the domestic rugby competition of New Zealand. The reason for that fierce competitiveness is quite simple. We are hungrier because we have more to lose than any of the others.
Is there a risk that the All Blacks will lose touch with the ordinary people simply by virtue of money? Can a game that was a foundation stone of our egalitarianism retain its mythical place if it no longer practises egalitarianism itself? As the century turns, the answer to that question remains elusive. We have come to realise that sport is no more and no less than a mirror of the society around it. Inequality is now part of the established order in New Zealand. By professionalising the game we have certainly unleashed a whole new set of forces that may be difficult to control in future. One thing is abundantly clear. The catchment area is immediately widened the moment a sport goes professional.
New devotees are converted by the marketers, attracted by the hype, the prospect of violence or the sheer spectacle of a day out at the park. They don’t need to know all the rules or the subtleties of a game that at one level is very arcane but at another is extremely simple. They go along because it is an occasion. It doesn’t matter where the players come from any more. They are now drafted to and fro around the country with bewildering speed each season and as often as not there are very few home-town boys in any of the major provincial teams. The provenance of the players is no longer of any consequence. It is the brand that matters. It is no longer fashionable to call a team by its humdrum geographical name. Whether Highlanders or Hurricanes, Chiefs or Steelers, the pattern is familiar. Branding is here to stay. The names may be trite or slavishly devoted to machismo, but that is all part of the imagery.
Television is the pivot around which sporting devotions revolve and TV is unrelenting in its compulsion to fashion the sport to suit the medium. Cricket, once the most sedate and self-contained of games, has collapsed into the arms of the sound bite. Five-day tests will not survive far into the next century. The one-day game will soon be threatened by Cricket Max, a madcap, helterskelter version that is over in a couple of hours, including ad breaks. Someone will no doubt invent a version of cricket that can fit neatly into a one-hour TV schedule. Golf is also under pressure. Someone has already dreamed up a running version of it called, imaginatively, “Speed Golf”, in which participants race each other round the course in an absurd mockery of the very essence of a game designed to provide for a leisurely stroll amid nature with the occasional swing at a ball. What next?
As in so many other spheres of life, women are asserting themselves in sports with rapidly increasing effect. We now have world-class exponents in a whole range of sports, including rugby, netball, board-sailing, athletics, swimming, show-jumping, rowing and in many of the mega-demanding sports like tri-athletics. The media may be dragging its feet in terms of adequate coverage but it would be a brave individual who would predict that that situation will last long into the 21st century.
Because of its profound influence at almost every level of society, sport is beginning to be taken seriously by many of those who would never have done so before. Dinner party conversations in the more cerebral quarters of town now no longer eschew any mention of the game at the park. A little knowledge of the local team’s fortunes can open many a corporate door and swing many a deal. Academic careers are being fashioned from the sociology or the physiology of sport. Medical science is fascinated by it. Business is bedazzled by its sales potential. Even the literary world is waking up to the drama that it generates. A growing body of literature (such as A P Gaskell’s “The Big Game”, James McNeish’s Lovelock, Greg McGee’s Foreskin’s Lament, Roger Hall’s C’mon Black, Tessa Duder’s Alex and Paula Boock’s Home Run) has been fashioned from its vice-like grip on the popular imagination even if the great New Zealand sporting novel has yet to appear.
In fractious times sport has dismantled barriers that would otherwise remain impassable. It is a fascinating point of convergence for Maori, Pakeha and Pacific Islander; one of the few real bridges between each of the cultures. The romance, the legends, the folklore of the great matches and the great players are not a Pakeha monopoly. They belong to all. Differences between the races have always been set aside for rugby in particular, even if it took us four-fifths of the century to figure out that some other peoples’ racial issues would be better served by taking our ball and staying home with it.
All over the country the pattern is repeating itself. More and more school and age group teams are reliant on youthful Polynesian vigour to make the difference. Hulking youngsters dominate the landscape at almost every game. Fifteen-year-olds weighing a hundred kilos, and playing at centre, have become the norm. It is an arresting sight, not least for the modestly proportioned Pakeha lads who get run over every Saturday and wonder how many more times they must be offered up as a human sacrifice. The fact is, a page in New Zealand’s sporting evolution is being rapidly turned. The 21st century will be an age in which sports will be dominated by young Polynesians. The transformation is well under way. Bryan Williams was the first Pacific Islander to play for the All Blacks, in 1970. He was a novelty at the time. Since then the trickle has turned to a flood. It is the same in basketball, netball and league, and the process is beginning in other, less physically confrontational sports like cricket, tennis, golf, rowing and of course athletics.
There is probably no more eloquent expression of multiculturalism at work than the sight of a touch rugby tournament, uniting races and genders within an easy informality. The ethnic imagery does not go unnoticed in other parts of the world. Robin Williams, the actor, watched a video of the All Blacks in action and his preconceived, identikit vision of New Zealand society was shattered. He was so impressed he immediately ordered tickets for the World Cup. This new vibrant image is a metaphor for a society whose hard European shell is finally being broken. Will the day come when some of our national teams no longer feature a single white face? More importantly, will it matter?
Pakeha New Zealanders are coming to see Samoans, for instance, in a new light. They see the courtly, disciplined manner of so many of the new stars and are impressed. They notice that their own kids’ idols are no longer white. That’s something new. They know instinctively that Michael Jones was more than just a unique athlete. His mana is derived from his lifestyle choices, his unshakable faith in his church, his family and his status as a New Zealander as well as a Samoan New Zealander. People like that. They can relate to it. And they find his self-deprecating modesty genuinely appealing.
If this is the face of New Zealand sport in the 21st century then let the millennium roll.
Chris Laidlaw is a former All Black, and now writes a sports column for the Evening Post.