Despatches from the rugby jungle, Paul Thomas

Anton Oliver with Brian Turner
Hodder Moa, $49.99,
ISBN 1869589912

The Winter Game: Rediscovering the Passion of Rugby
Todd R Nicholls
Mainstream Publishing, $49.95,
ISBN 1840189150

The New Zealand book trade has long had a vested interest in demythologising the All Blacks. Since 1973 to be precise: Mud In Your Eye by ex-All Black and Kiwi Renaissance Man-in-training Chris Laidlaw contained the first admission from inside the camp that All Blacks don’t always live up to their countrymen’s masculine ideal and aren’t always equipped to carry the burden of their countrymen’s expectations. Laidlaw apparently angered his erstwhile team-mates, especially the married ones, by revealing that while engaged on a quest for New Zealand rugby’s Holy Grail – that elusive series win in South Africa – some of them were all too susceptible to the off-field distractions laid on by their wily hosts.

Now, it seems, Father’s Day isn’t complete without a slab of disgruntled and self-serving autobiography whose ostensible author, a suddenly candid ex-All Black, is only too happy to spear-tackle the century-old article of faith that our national team is a happy band of brothers united behind a stalwart captain and guided by a canny and inspiring coach. The most penetrating and readable inside scoops have in fact come from outsiders – Laidlaw and fellow halfback and Rhodes Scholar David Kirk, both of whom retired prematurely in part because of what they perceived to be a stifling and intolerant team culture.

Inside is particularly intriguing because Anton Oliver is both an insider and an outsider, a no-nonsense tight forward of the old school and an intelligent man with a willingness – perhaps a compulsion – to question authority and a meaningful life outside the game. How many All Black front rowers have prepared for a High Noon-style scrum confrontation by immersing themselves in French Impressionism at the Musée d’Orsay?

A review of Oliver’s career almost demands deployment of the sportswriting cliché “rollercoaster ride”. Groomed as the successor to the all-but-irreplaceable Sean Fitzpatrick, he duly took over the number 2 jersey and later the captaincy. But in 2002 this Rise and Rise narrative suddenly and savagely went into reverse. By the 2003 World Cup, he’d been downgraded to the sixth-best hooker in the country. On the verge of quitting New Zealand, he was unexpectedly recalled. Although further injury and the incumbent’s rapid development have prevented him from regaining first-choice hooker status, he seems to have been encouraged into the role of team conscience, historian in residence and keeper of the flame.

Oliver learned early on that being selected for the All Blacks was one thing, being accepted as such quite another. Summoned to Sydney for a Bledisloe Cup game, he was excluded from a meeting at which the team effectively resolved to abandon the black jersey and the New Zealand public and sell themselves to an Australian entrepreneur’s rebel enterprise. At practice Ian Jones, whose goofy grin and variable delivery now add a certain je ne sais quoi to Sky TV’s rugby coverage, tried to make the new boy look bad by throwing him awkward passes. “I felt like shit, disillusioned,” recalls Oliver. “My whole perception of what the All Blacks were was shattered.”

On tour in South Africa the following year, he was again on the outer, treated as the hired help by the likes of Jones, largely left to his own devices by the management and dismayed by senior players’ readiness to steal team-mates’ gear.  The series was won but Oliver’s alienation was such that he absented himself from the famous grandstand haka performed by non-playing team members: “A lot of my boyhood myths were shattered. The feeling of disconnection grew and grew to the point where, when we got home, I was relieved to escape from the vaunted ‘All Black environment’.”

It’s worth pointing out that this was the team that achieved what the New Zealand rugby community had been yearning for since the 1920s and this was the year in which the win-loss ratio against the Springboks finally moved in the All Blacks’ favour, thus providing an arithmetical basis for New Zealand’s pretensions to being the pre-eminent rugby nation. Oliver gives credit to the architects of these achievements but at times his tone veers uncomfortably close to that of other disenchanted bit-players like Todd Blackadder and Norm Hewitt whose literary wallows in self-pity invited the response: “This isn’t about you.”

Oliver’s second barrel is directed at the John Mitchell-Robbie Deans coaching regime, specifically their reintroduction of a booze culture that, as captain, Oliver, along with manager Andrew Martin and previous coach Wayne Smith, had sought to jettison.

This charge was first aired by Martin and long-serving team doctor John Mayhew in my 2003 book A Whole New Ball Game. A New Zealand Rugby Union PR flack dismissed Martin’s comments as sour grapes caused by him having been “humptied” out of his job and insisted that Mayhew had been misquoted. Oliver’s forensic account emphatically vindicates Martin. This episode shouldn’t be dismissed as a personality clash or an argument over whether boys should be allowed to be boys. After Mitchell engineered the ousting of his boss (he reported to Martin, not the other way round) essentially for telling the truth in his manager’s report on the 2001 end-of-year tour, he gained total control of the All Blacks. And we all know what happened then.

Incidentally Brian Turner’s involvement in this book brings to mind the occasion when two of New Zealand’s leading men of letters jousted over the issue of the All Black coach’s intelligence. After the Poet Laureate had opined that Mitchell couldn’t be taken seriously given his propensity for “New Age speak”, novelist Lloyd Jones ventured inside Mitchell’s head for a newspaper’s weekend magazine and emerged declaring “finally, thank God, we have an All Black coach who reads.” Subsequent events, including Mitchell’s admission that he’d never heard of Sun-Tzu’s treatise on strategy The Art Of War, suggested that Jones might have overestimated the power and range of Mitchell’s mind.

At this point Oliver and Turner reload and take aim at one of the bigger beasts in the rugby jungle, former Otago, Highlanders and All Blacks coach (and fellow Southern Man) Laurie Mains. He cops both barrels. While this section of the book detailing the internecine warfare within the Highlanders franchise in 2002/03 mightn’t grip non-Otagoites, it amounts to a detailed, persuasive and overdue deflating of a reputation that owes as much to politicking, assiduous public relations and hagiography as it does to the achievements of Mains’s various teams.

If not quite the instant classic of sporting literature some have discerned, Inside is still a substantial and rewarding book, worth any number of the once-over-lightly ego trips churned out by the nation’s ghostwriters. Mayhew gave up reading players’ books “because so much of what’s in them is patently untrue”. Unfortunately for the targets, much of what’s in Inside is all too credible. Late in 2004 one of Oliver’s mentors advised him to retire because rugby was losing its ethos: “You know what you’d like to restore. It won’t happen. It’s too late; it’s gone.”

A similar sense of disillusionment with rugby in the professional era was the starting point for Todd R Nicholls. Whereas most of us might have waited for the feeling to pass or taken up gardening, he embarked on an “18-month odyssey”, culminating in last year’s Lions tour to discover whether rugby was still worth getting passionate about.

Since rugby went professional a great deal has been said (mainly by envious former players and blowhards on talkback radio) and written on this theme, the vast majority of it as shallow as a birdbath, as Robert Muldoon used to say of his political opponents. The conspiracy theorists who claim the game has been hijacked by corporate interests seem to think a sport can exist outside society, quarantined from the trends and forces that shape the way we live. Those who evoke the good old days do so selectively if not fraudulently, glossing over the deceit of shamateurism and the shameful and divisive South African connection, among other things.

Rugby was forced to go professional, with all that entailed, by social and economic change. The alternative was irrelevance. Any discussion of this subject that doesn’t take in such issues as – to name a few – the advent of pay television, the feminisation of society, the dramatic toughening in drink-driving law and enforcement, and the decline of team sport in an age of individualism is only scratching the surface. And scratch Nicholls does, all the way from Dublin to Dunedin, for The Winter Game isn’t a serious, in-depth examination of anything at all. It’s a fan’s scrapbook complete with hazy nostalgia, cloying sentimentality and alarming spelling mistakes (“gezzer” for “geezer”, “Rueben” for “Reuben”), its premise seemingly nothing more than a means for the author to gain face-time with his innumerable heroes.

Nicholls, it must be said, appears to have an unhealthy capacity for hero-worship. After interviewing Richie (“Richard has become symbolic of my journey”) McCaw, he gives him a box of chocolates. No doubt the soft-centred variety.


Paul Thomas is a Wellington-based writer.

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Posted in Non-fiction, Review, Sport
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