Remorse in the stands, Susan Bartel

Jonah: My Story
Warren Adler
Hodder Moa Beckett, $35.50,
ISBN 1869589793

How to Watch a Game of Rugby
Spiro Zavos
Awa Press, $19.00,
ISBN 0958250936

First sentence: “The booing and the jeering of the Wellington crowd rang in my ears.” Oh, bugger! That was me, Jonah. We all booed you (except Monica). We called you “Joanna” and “Butterfingers”, and filthier, nastier, unprintable things. We groaned every time you dropped the ball and we screamed at the coach to sub you.

Will your story change me?

Susan: My Story goes like this. I “discovered” rugby after Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa – when I had stopped marching and was facing a barren patch in the American football season. I attended my first live match in 1996 at Athletic Park. I saw Norm Hewitt and couldn’t believe my eyes. Here was a man, a sportsman, shaped like a cube, and he was awesome! I fell in love with rugby and with Normy.

Fanaticism kicked in during 2001, when I bought my first season ticket and became one of the Scrumbags (our “team” name). So I encountered Jonah just as he was sliding down the slippery slope. And, at that time, we had no idea what was happening off the field or inside his body.

As our god Tana Umaga says in the book:

None of us knew how bad “big guy” was in Super 12 2003…  He never liked to burden anyone with his problems… As captain of the Hurricanes I was hard on him. “Come on,” I’d say, “the team needs you – I need you.” When I found out the extent of his illness I felt terrible. I rang him to say how sorry I was – sorry I had demanded more from him when he already had this massive problem. “No worries,” he said. That’s typical Jonah. For every player in the Hurricanes it then became a question of what we could do for the man who for so long had wanted to do so much for everyone else.


Jonah’s story – woven from more than 40 hours of interviews taped while he was undergoing dialysis – is told in an easy-going conversational style, with a tone that is both reflective and calm. The often articulate voice (which surprised me) is dotted with an unsurprising amount of “crap” and “bullshit” and “whatever” – giving a satisfying sense of authenticity to the narrative.

It’s a book I intended to skim. Instead I read every word and studied every photograph. I celebrated every win and anguished over every defeat, from schooldays to superstardom. And my respect for Jonah grew at the same rate as my own sense of self-loathing.

So he stole bikes and beat the shit out of people in South Auckland during his screwed-up teen years. Haven’t we all been screwed-up teenagers? And who could blame him? Ripped from his auntie’s loving arms as a wee boy in Tonga, trying to fit into a family he didn’t know, being whipped with an electric cord by his brutal father, teased at school for not speaking English, always too big for his breeches …  .

But all along people helped him because they saw something that I didn’t see until I read his story. They helped him to help himself and to become the noble, bitter-free, humble man he is today. Yes, Jonah. I love and respect you now. No bullshit, man.

All the greats are here to augment the big guy’s story: Rushie, Buncey, Joshie, Jeffie, Harty, and even people without diminutive names – Chris Grinter, the deputy headmaster of Wesley College (Jonah’s “first real father figure” and the man who introduced him to rugby union), Phil Kingsley-Smith (ex-manager, fired just before the book was published), Doc Mayhew, Pinetree, Holmes (and that famous tearful interview). Hmn, where are the voices of first-wife Tanya Rutter and ex-girlfriend Teina Stace? Perhaps Andrew Morton will contact them.

A Lomu fan once said to me, “You’ll have Jonah to thank one day.” I sneerily replied, “Oh yeah, and for what?” Little did I know that I would thank Jonah for helping me realise what a truly despicable person I am. For seeing myself as a cruel, loud-mouthed smart-ass with no compassion or understanding of the struggles of a person whose destiny is superior to my own. Yes, thank you, Jonah, for inspiring me to become a better person.

As we now know, Jonah’s life is truly a game of two halves. Grant Kereama has given a kidney to Jonah. The doctors have stuffed it into a place in Jonah’s body that could allow him to play rugby again. How do I feel about that? Well, if it’s ok with Grant . . . Hell, yes. Shit, man, whatever … Bring back Jonah!


“A good watcher of rugby”, according to Spiro Zavos:

opens himself or herself up to a plethora of narratives by knowing as much as possible about rugby, its history, its laws, its culture, its tribalism, its literature, its beauty, its ugliness, its customs, the players and the thinkers, what happened in past games and what might happen in the future.


In How to Watch a Game of Rugby, Zavos takes us on a delightful (and insightful) romp through all of the above – into the realms of higher thought (all the way back to Pliny the Elder from 77AD), inside the thrilling, poetic and grunty side of the game, and even into the bedroom of Aussie sports writer Peter Fitzsimons.

Each chapter begins with a wonderfully quotable quote, and the chapters themselves bounce higgledy-piggledy all over the paddock – “A Short History of Nearly Everything About Rugby”, “Making a Pass” and “Consensual Rugby” (an exploration of the sex/no sex-before-the game conundrum), an informative chapter on the history of rugby laws (they’re not “rules”), and one entitled “Ultimate Team”, devoted to famous people who played rugby (Pope Paul II, for instance) or were “rugby tragics” like Zavos himself.

Every page of this huge little book extends our knowledge of rugby. Zavos takes us a long way over the advantage line – so that we can all become better watchers of the games to come. It’s a brilliant try!


Susan Bartel is public relations manager for the Alexander Turnbull Library and the National Library Gallery. She is also Scrum Mother to the Scrumbags.


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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Review, Sport
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