Nothing to do with fair play, Don Aimer

Somebody Stole My Game
Chris Laidlaw
HodderMoa, $39.99,
ISBN 9781869711924

The Awa Book of New Zealand Sports Writing
Harry Ricketts (ed)
Awa Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9780958291620

These two books complement each other, and their paths criss-cross. In Somebody Stole My Game, Chris Laidlaw enumerates new crises in the governance of rugby in a professional era and the difficulties of dealing with the giant media companies and corporates that fund the game. The Awa Book of New Zealand Sports Writing is at the other end of the spectrum, recording the fun, the despair or triumph of individuals or team members. It is an anthology of some 93 pieces, some by sports writers or participants, others from leading fiction writers – Lloyd Jones, C K Stead et al.

Laidlaw quotes George Orwell’s comment: “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It’s bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in … violence.” So how does this dictum fare in these two books?

Well, rugby comes out as the recreation of choice for communities that like a bit of violence, with undercurrents of homophobia and discrimination against women. Laidlaw thinks the suppression of violence on the field has gone too far and that a bit of biffo is healthy. He notes that some see rugby as an antidote to wife beating. You beat up on someone else on the field instead. Well, that’s a real step toward civilisation! But how do we expect someone who lashes out on the field to refrain from such an obvious tool to keep the wife in order?

Homophobia is an undercurrent in the inspired finale of Foreskin’s Lament by Greg McGee, reprinted in The Awa Book. “Whaddarya” is the refrain that blankets all sissies. However, it goes deeper, and in the end the broken-down rugby player knows that he too is tainted – “ just … couldn’t … hack it”. Whaddarya incorporates his ultimate failure. Laidlaw predicts that this aspect of the whaddarya syndrome will hit professional players ever earlier as the intensity of the game is ratcheted up.

Richard Boock points to discrimination against women in a 2008 article reprinted in The Awa Book. To be fair his examples go much wider than rugby, but he indicts the masculinised footie culture in which sexual encounters have to do with “power and dominance, issues associated with misogyny”. All of this is not a good look. Welcome to the real New Zealand! Fortunately, people can turn to a wider range of sports than a generation ago. Football has come into its own, and hockey is in good standing.

In Somebody Stole My Game, Laidlaw points out the destructive trends that have accompanied professionalism. The thieves who stole his game are the corporates and the media companies that have turned players and their sport into commodities to be traded in the market. The All Blacks have become a brand. You don’t go to the Park to watch a game; you go to be involved in an experience. The International Rugby Board dreams of turning rugby into a world sport to challenge football. Money is therefore being poured into rugby start-up nations. The aspirations of top rugby players for ever higher pay seem unlimited. The national unions must pay not only the players but also the professional apparatus of coaches, medicos and advisers. Left far behind are the struggling local and regional organisations. Laidlaw warns of the imminent separation of these elements along with a withering of the grassroots.

The aspirations of media for television coverage are equally unlimited, with a demand for more and more games. The impact has been twofold. Players will burn out earlier in a more damaged state under the intense physical challenge. Second, as the amount of rugby on TV balloons, there are signs that punters are becoming sated, resulting in a drop in ratings and fears the moguls might walk away – the ultimate nightmare.

I checked out this suggestion with several keen punters, who do not seem to feel that way themselves, and, while agreeing that attendance at games has fallen in recent seasons, they think this may be a side-effect of the recession, and that only more time will test Laidlaw’s concern.

Laidlaw knows the pressures that led to professionalism can’t be undone. He has, however, a number of proposals for change, which should be manageable and which should alleviate some of the problems facing the game.

One he does not make is a direct challenge to the media corporations. We now know from the finance industry how irrational and self-destructive corporate behaviour can be when unregulated. Perhaps the international rugby authorities need to lay out the rules required to prevent corporates from wrecking their market, and the players into the bargain. There will be rage, but it’s hard to see the media walking away from rugby while it is still a good money-spinner. Maybe, however, international rugby is caught in the same hubris and is also blind to the dangers.

Laidlaw’s credentials on apartheid are attested to in The Awa Book, with the reprint of the final chapter from his earlier Mud in Your Eye, which savaged the sclerotic and reactionary rugby hierarchy of the day. Rhodes Scholar, All Black, diplomat and broadcaster, he is well placed to comment on the issues facing rugby. Not only is he steeped in the game, but he writes compellingly, in a style robust, opinionated and colloquial, well suited to its target of rugby supporters.

He makes free use of joyous hyperbole: “[W]hen the British Lions came in 2005, they brought enough officials to man the QE2. It was the biggest expeditionary force to land here since the redcoats came to quell rebellious Maori.” The chapters are short, and the opinions seem, to an outsider, to be sensible, although no doubt pundits will vigorously debate them. Whether rugby lives or dies won’t make much of a dent in my life, but I was carried along by the book, enjoyed most of it and learned a lot.

How does the Orwell hypothesis go down in the Awa Book of Sports Writing? Pretty deep, to judge from the amusing extract from Norman Bilbrough’s A Short History of Paradise. Members of a hippie commune arrive stoned and bumbling to play football against their uptight Christian commune neighbours. Finally, enraged by the successfully unethical tactics of the Christians, they develop a killer tactic of their own and win the day: “the Christians managed two surly cheers.”

But Roger Robinson, distinguished in both literature and running, in substance refutes Orwell. He floats through the Boston Marathon with almost Zen-like tranquillity, his account as near as one can get in words to the montage of running legs, running, running, running the marathon, in Leni Riefenstahl’s famous/notorious film of the 1936 Olympic Games. Lorraine Moller tells it with limpid clarity in writing about her marathon run in the Barcelona Olympics: “The minute I thought I had it in the bag was the same minute I would fall prey to my own hubris …. My foe was not out there but in my own self.”

“My own self” – well, we knew it all the time really. The pieces on mountain climbing, cycling, fishing confirm that Orwell has only half the story, even if it is the half we lust after.

What amazed me about The Awa Book was the range of the selection. Ricketts is like a twitcher intent on sighting every possible species of bird. Some are only glimpsed but others are richly observed. Hunting is one surprising omission because it is such a popular obsession. Pig-hunting stories, in particular, are full of terrifying encounters with enraged boars. However, aviation, with Richard Pearse and Jean Batten, was a bonus I had not expected.

This is a book that begs to be dipped into: perfect for holiday reading, and a great present when you can’t think what to get that chap. There is even some verse, including a hilarious ribald fantasy by Bub Bridger: “O-o-o-o-h-h-hh if I had a Whetton for Christmas/Just imagine the rucks… and the mauls!” I also enjoyed Bill Sewell on Richard Pearse: “for God’s sake someone/bring him down/before he wraps himself round that steeple”.

But … wait for it … above them all soars McGee’s Foreskin’s Lament, poignant, rich and allusive, becketting and joycing us back to the core of existence … . Sport does not rule. Proust rules.


Don Aimer is a Wellington reviewer. 


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