Not yet outflanked, David Grant

On the Loose
Josh Kronfeld with Brian Turner
Longacre Press, $44.95,
ISBN 1 877135 30 5

Josh Kronfeld, All Black openside flanker, has always impressed me as an “aw shucks” kind of bloke. There are smiling eyes, a silly grin, throwaway shrugs of the shoulder, and enough photographs in this book to reinforce that image. While there is no doubt that this “friendliness” is part of Kronfeld’s widespread appeal, there are more sides to the Kronfeld persona, less obvious perhaps, but cogent nonetheless to a keen observer.

Within the team construct, an individualism emerges. To his public, this manifests itself in different ways. The “Stop Testing” and “No Nukes” slogans inked on his headgear when he played Waikato in 1995 in protest against France’s plan to recommence nuclear testing at Mururoa (and the NZRFU’s predictably reactionary response). The contorting range of exercises he indulges in after the All Blacks or Highlanders run on to the field – apart from the other players, who pass the ball or gather in a bunch. Within the game itself, in relentless pursuit of the ball, the distinctive running style, a kind of Neanderthal hunch with his neck tucked into his shoulders, flailing arms ready to rip the ball from a tackled opponent’s grasp. Arms flail too, or gesticulate to challenge the referee’s decision, when he remonstrates, or feigns outrage at being caught offside, or for some other misdemeanour.

Affection for Kronfeld runs deep throughout the country, most particularly in Otago where a recent radio survey determined him to be the province’s most popular resident. There is no doubt he is a prodigious rugby talent. That he throws his body on the line in every tackle and at every ruck, and suffers bruising and sometimes worse in every game, appeals to the machismo in all rugby aficionados, many of whom, both here and overseas, have assessed him as being the world’s best openside flank forward over the past three or four years.

Among all of this, and because of his perceived “greatness” there is, unusually for a top rugby player, a kind of mystique about Josh Kronfeld that is less easy to define. Before this book, his own comments about the game have been few and obscure. Even his co-writer and confidant, Brian Turner, scrupulous, hard-hitting and acerbic in his own writing about sport, talks both of Kronfeld’s candour and elusiveness in his dealings with him. Nonetheless I looked forward to On the Loose – to have some questions answered and have my perceptions either confirmed or denied.

Within On The Loose’s easy-to-read mix of history and comment is the usual stuff of rugby autobiography: childhood and adolescence (enjoyable and supportive), young man’s university rugby culture (just as macho, if not more so than when I was playing the game 30 years ago), comments on coaches (especially amusing was the legendary Ox), players both for and against, friends, loved ones, his injuries (and there have been many), the games he has played, his performances, other players’ performances.

One intriguing story is Kronfeld’s relationship with John Hart, who took over from Laurie Mains as All Black coach in 1996. Kronfeld was apprehensive about this development. He understood from media comments that Hart had doubts about his playing ability and commitment. Certainly, Kronfeld says Hart played “mind games” with him, constantly praising Andrew Blowers in front of him, while never having a good word to say about his performance. In the worst incident, just before the 1997 Bledisloe Cup match against Australia at Carisbrook, Hart stood over Kronfeld screaming abuse at him in front of the team, accusing him of playing “atrociously” and letting the team down.

Hart’s behaviour was indefensible. Kronfeld was understandably upset and angry and it affected future performances on the field. In contrast to the sycophancy that emerges from Paul Thomas’s 1993 biography of Hart, Straight from the Hart, and from other sources, Kronfeld is less than enamoured of his coach. While acknowledging Hart’s innovations, Kronfeld is blunt in his criticism of Hart – namely, that he talked too much and that, under him, the team did not train hard enough. It was not until 1998 that Hart acknowledged Kronfeld’s abilities as an international flanker.

My main criticism of rugby biographies is that they are published before the player has completed his career, presumably for marketing reasons. In Josh Kronfeld’s case my concern might be premature because, in April 2000, I query his future. Last November, in a pub deep in the Scottish Highlands, and surrounded by pints of Guinness, single malts and good company, I stared in open-mouthed disbelief as an inept All Black team was taken apart in one of those brilliant, eclectic performances that the French national team turn on once in a blue moon. In the second half as France rattled on the points, Josh Kronfeld was outplayed by his opposite Olivier Magne whose free range running and cover defence reminded one of Josh’s early hero, Michael Jones, at his best.

Of course, Kronfeld was not the only player off his game that day but in 2000 he has yet to find the form in the Super 12 competition to keep him in the top echelon of openside flankers. New All Black coach Wayne Smith has promised to pick his team on form alone. On that criterion, Kupu Vanisi and Scott Robertson lead the race currently, although I suspect Smith might stick with Kronfeld in the first of the forthcoming tri-nation tests, because of his international experience.

Josh Kronfeld at 29 is coming to the twilight of his career. He has suffered serious injuries to his arm, ankle and wrist and is a marked man among opponents, and, I would argue, to some referees. He is an engaging character loved by many, in and beyond Otago. He wears his heart on his sleeve in this book and I applaud him for his forthrightness. Turner’s hand is clearly present. His respect and admiration for Kronfeld is clear but we are spared that overweening hagiography that permeates some of this genre.

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

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Posted in Autobiography, Non-fiction, Review, Sport
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