Strikes against the head, Chris Laidlaw

Tackling Rugby Myths: Rugby and New Zealand Society 1854-2004
ed Greg Ryan
University of Otago Press, $39.95,
ISBN 1877276979

It was Voltaire, who, not without a dash of cynicism, declared that all history is but myth that time has rendered acceptable.

New Zealand history doesn’t seem to have many myths. Perhaps we haven’t spent enough time reflecting on it yet. All we have are the old favourites of the reactionaries, like the one about the Moriori being wiped out on the mainland by the Maori; or that all Maori were cannibals, or that Maori were delighted to welcome the settlers. Beyond these it’s a bit of a challenge to come up with any really juicy myths.

Perhaps that’s why attention has turned to sport. On the face of it, sport is the very essence of myth making. Those memorable moments that slip gently into memory often gather the moss of mythology. The tries scored are that much more dramatic. The innings played seem that much more heroic with the passage of time and the retelling of the yarns. Human nature tends to be very selective about what it wants to glorify, and sport, beyond the scorebook, is all about selective memory. But how seriously has the game been misrepresented in the public mind? Have the myths morphed into reality without our noticing? Isn’t it time to disassemble some of them?

I suppose it was bound to happen sooner or later, and now it has. A group of enterprising academics have devoted their energies to turning over some of these sacred standing stones to see what really lies beneath them, and they have come up with some very interesting conclusions.

Rugby has tended to gaze back at its past through spectacles that are ever more rose-tinted. That past is full of contradictions, counter-currents and curiosities but, somehow, many of these have been ironed out of the public memory, and we are left with a series of interesting myths about how the game got started, who actually played it, and how monolithic it became in this country.

In the introduction to Tackling Rugby Myths: Rugby and New Zealand Society 1854-2004, editor Greg Ryan sets out the intention very clearly. The job is to reveal a game “marked by significant discontinuity throughout its history” and to “address the existing historiography of New Zealand rugby and the role of a number of academic historians in reinforcing and lending a veneer of credibility to the popular mythology”. In other words, watch out Keith Sinclair, Jamie Belich, Jock Phillips et al, the facts police are on the case, and they come heavily armed with quantitative evidence of miscreant myth-making.

Rugby, our popular history tells us, grew out of the rural pioneering spirit of the settler, but Greg Ryan and his colleagues will have none of this. They demonstrate that rugby, from the very beginning, was essentially an urban game, played by far more townies than the gaunt, taciturn farmers of folklore. And they back this up with an impressive array of statistics to give the proposition some scholarly biff. This myth persisted, they say, particularly with regard to the All Blacks’ composition. Even in the late 1960s, it was being maintained that the core of the team was rural in character while it was obvious to anybody who did the numbers that the national team was an overwhelmingly urban one. As one of those involved at the time, and never having opened a farm gate in my life I have some sympathy with this observation. Yet the stats don’t do justice to the overriding ethos of the All Black team of the era as essentially representing the provinces rather than the cities. Perception will always be more powerful than raw data.

It is true, as the authors have pointed out, that rugby did not take hold as the national game in quite the way that history would have it. Frequently, it has been a divisive and divided activity, frowned upon by certain sectors of society and far from the classless vehicle for national unity that historians have tended to take for granted. As the researchers reveal, at times startlingly, rugby was far from popular with women at certain stages of its history. It was far too rough for the ladies’ liking toward the end of the 19th century and again at various periods ever since. It was regarded as oafish and politically incorrect in the 1970s and 80s.

One of the more interesting propositions that appears to have embedded itself in the national memory is that the 1981 Springbok tour served, somehow, to bring women together against rugby. Charlotte Hughes examines this notion in considerable depth and comes to the conclusion that there isn’t much evidence to support it. Gender relations were barely ruffled by the whole business, which split the public rather more on ideological grounds, even if there were marginally more women than men opposed to the tour.

Nor was rugby particularly supportive of Maori for the first 100 years or so in spite of the popular belief that Maori were welcomed into the fold immediately after the game became established in the 1870s. We tend to date the beginning of any racial undertones in the game at around 1960, when disquiet over contact with South Africa began to crystallise. In fact, there were many instances of duplicity, double standards and downright prejudice much earlier as settler New Zealand rationalised its own relations with Maori against those of our enlightened white South African imperial cousins and the South Africans invariably came off best.

The book notes the current popular assumption that somehow rugby has been taken away from the masses as a result of professionalism; that the game has been “eroded, perhaps even sabotaged, by forces acting contrary to the best interests of the game”. Happily, they stop short of labelling this a myth for the good reason that it isn’t. Nor is it likely to become one because there is ample evidence of that sense of alienation to render this as hard, cold reality.

But the researchers reveal their inherently superficial understanding of the game when they claim that it is a myth that the All Blacks’ aura of invincibility evaporated in the 1990s. The reasons for the team’s failure and the cure for it are, they maintain, derived from myths and clichés that hold no place in reality. If Len Richardson is to be believed, professionalism holds no real dangers for the game in New Zealand any more than the other challenges it has had to face over the last century. If only he were right. The moment the game went professional was the moment New Zealand’s comparative advantage went out the window. The All Blacks are not the dominant force they were simply because of this factor, and it is an exercise in myth-making to suggest otherwise.

This book is a very thorough and penetrating analysis of a game which has worked its way, like a mutating virus, into the bloodstream of a nation. But some things simply don’t lend themselves to rational analysis. Myth and reality are, as Voltaire suggested, a curious amalgam. Without its myths rugby has no reality.


Chris Laidlaw is a broadcaster and columnist. He played for the All Blacks in the 1960s.


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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, Sport
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