Becoming heroic, Garth Baker

The Open Side
Richie McCaw (with Greg McGee)
Hodder Moa, $50.00,
ISBN 9781869712761

Valerie: The Autobiography
Valerie Adams (with Phil Gifford)
Hodder Moa, $50.00,
ISBN 9781869712624

Let’s start with the numbers, all big. The initial 60,000 print run of Richie McCaw’s The Open Side sold out in 36 hours, and in the three months since its launch it has gone on to sell 120,000 copies, making it the best-selling rugby book of all time.

The previous best-selling rugby biography in New Zealand, the 1974 Colin Meads All Black, sold 55,000. Jonah Lomu’s 2004 biography sold 45,000 copies locally, and a further 20,000 internationally (and he got his own Play Station game). The previous best-selling international rugby book, the autobiography of former English captain Martin Johnson, sold 70,000. The popularity of McCaw’s book is off the scoreboard. A friend got two copies for Christmas and read them both.

These phenomenal sales numbers match McCaw’s performance as a player. Debuting as an All Black 11 years ago with a “man-of-the-match” performance, he’s gone on to play 116 games, an unusually high number as a victorious captain. I could go on and on, but coming back to the comparison with Meads, considered by many to be New Zealand’s greatest ever rugby player and named Player of the Century in 1999, McCaw is now being touted (by a South African coach, of all people) as the best international player who has ever played rugby. However you measure it, he’s now bigger than a pine tree.

But it isn’t just the stats, McCaw’s life is also impressive. In a recent interview he told Kim Hill, with typical Southern Man understatement, that he agreed to this book because he had “a bit of a story to tell”. He kicks it off by briefly explaining, with some embarrassment, how he set a teenage goal to not only play for the All Blacks, but to be a GAB – a great All Black.

His story then takes us straight into the trauma of the quarter final of the 2007 Rugby World Cup, where the All Blacks were (once more) beaten by the French. Photographed afterwards, with his face in his hands, McCaw’s extreme physical, personal and professional pain is all too public. His story, told in his voice, is about how he responded to this loss: being determined it wouldn’t happen again; becoming a better leader; planning for the team to be ready for every contingency; developing their psychological and emotional resilience; managing politics; grieving, then saying “bugger it” and moving on; and taking time out to soar, alone, high above the country with its relentless expectations and constant attention.

He calls this period a “four-year long tunnel” as he concentrates on ensuring an All Black win at the 2011 Rugby World Cup. His story segues smoothly between current events and his back story, which explains his personal motivation and the qualities he draws on. McCaw’s story builds to the World Cup final and while we know it has a happy ending, his bio is still involving.

There’s enough to satisfy any rugby head, but this story is so much more. It is a warming tale of a boy growing into a well-respected man who never forgets his roots. It offers insight into personal and professional resilience, and is a case study of effective leadership. It also illustrates the social changes since the time of Meads’s biography and illustrates how we all, farm boys included, are smarter and live more complex lives.

But most satisfying of all, it is our version of a Greek epic poem. Initially humiliated, our humble hero is repeatedly tested but builds his spiritual resolve, physical prowess and mental toughness as his odyssey progresses until the final all-deciding, all-challenging contest. By the barest of margins, he triumphs, is fêted as a folk legend, his wounds heal and the world is a better place. McCaw’s biography reads as fiction that we’d like to be true, but even better – we know it is true.

Novelist and playwright Greg McGee, McCaw’s wordsmith, cleverly frames events, and builds dramatic tension, which gives this story its allegoric quality. Consequently, according to TV1 presenter Peter Williams, this book is “likely to be one of the best-selling New Zealand books of all time in any genre”. Pity McGee didn’t get to promote it at the Frankfurt Book Fair, alongside his thrillers.

Valerie: The Autobiography, also eschews the typical chronological sequence and cuts to the chase of her competing for, and ultimately winning, a gold medal at last year’s Olympics. With administration errors, personal tensions and the drug-cheating twist at the end, this is good reading. Starting with the most dramatic events makes it hard to hold interest for the rest of the book, which skips between different stages of her earlier life and career. The book was a popular read at the bach over the summer holiday. While we were unanimously frustrated by the book’s meandering sequence and lack of a strong ending, we were all drawn to her inspiring story and warm manner.

And surely this is what sports biographies are for – to let us build respect for our heroes. They also offer the opportunity to move beyond the protagonist’s very public, but ultimately limited, displays (performing their sports and giving sound bites afterwards) to a more intimate understanding of their personal motivations and experiences. McCaw, with his natural reserve but intensely scrutinised role, understands this public-private split more than anyone. Until now he’s guarded his privacy intensely and his bio, aptly entitled The Open Side, is a unique opportunity to hear his “bit of a story”.

Both biographies document the sheer hard work, courage, dedication and luck that it takes to build on natural talent, to develop and continually relearn physical and mental skills, and resilience, manage relationships (including with a fickle public), and steer through the politics and become a champion athlete. Making it look so easy takes more than most of us are capable of.

While I hope both McCaw and Adams have more sporting success to come, they’ll also end their remarkable sports careers relatively early, with a bulging bag of skills and experience. We need to find the right way for them to continue being heroic.


Garth Baker is a Wellington reader and sports fan.


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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Review, Sport
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