Rugby – just a game?
Mere minutes to full time, with the All Blacks and their arch rivals the South African Springboks tied 12-12 in the 1995 World Cup final, faces at the Ponsonby Rugby Club reflect the strain of the national game. For many New Zealanders, rugby is the silver fern on the jersey of life.
There is a hidden valley in Wales where babies are breastfed rugby, children learn to sidestep before they can walk, and, when naughty, are sent to bed without any supper and with a warning ringing in their ears: “Across the seas is a land of hardy farmers who shave with sandpaper and train by running up mountains with a sheep under each arm. Along with warrior natives, they send out a team dressed in funereal black who perform a fearsome war dance, a mere prelude to the ferocity of the rugby.”
I was one of the many who grew up in that Welsh valley. The first time I touched a rugby ball it was wet and muddy, with the clamminess that is unique to sodden leather. I held it for too short a time, and yearned to hold it longer. The first time I tackled anyone my thigh was raked by his sprigs. The abrasion turned white, then filled with red, leaving me with a scar that I wore as a medal for the days it took to heal.
I have played rugby in warm spring sunshine and in a blizzard, but mostly in the rain, with my jersey clinging to my back. With rain came mud, attaching itself to naked flesh like a second skin. No match was ever free of mud or blood, and both ended up smeared across my face like war paint.
On one rugby paddock lies half of one of my front teeth—a fossil perhaps to be discovered by a future archaeologist and filed among the relics of Homo rugbyi. On another, only the grass knows the secret that I fumbled the ball as I crossed the line, although I was awarded the try. On a third, the wind is still tainted with my humiliation as I tried to play dirty, driving my knee repeatedly into an opponent’s backside. But he was built like a walrus, his nether regions fortified by hundreds of cream cakes, and he just laughed at me. So ended my career as a hard man.
I played with my socks rolled down and my sleeves rolled up in the middle of the forwards, the boilerhouse of the team. I was one of the scavengers of possession, always chasing, jumping, pushing or pulling for the ball. Once won it was dutifully passed to the backs, who ran with it until inevitable collision started the whole hauling, shoving process anew.
But I recall my triumphs with relish. Wrestling ferociously for the ball with a player half as big as me again; once, with psychic intuition, flipping the ball behind me straight to another on our team who scored unopposed.
Pain, rain, mud, exhilaration—these to me are rugby.And fear. Fear of dropping the ball or missing the tackle, of feeling fingertips groping into your eye sockets, of lying on the ground when the whole mass of bodies is avalanching on top of you. Or the fear of an impact which causes one of those white sticks that hold your body together to go snap!
To be honest, I’d rather play rugby than write about it.There are grandmothers in this country who know more about rugby than I do. Decades ago they dubbed polish on to boots by candlelight the night before a game, got up on Saturday morning when they would have preferred another hour in a warm bed, tied bootlaces, then stood on sidelines wrapped in scarves, blowing on to chilled hands, shouting encouragement, wiping away disappointed tears. Back home they threw filthy bodies into steaming baths and mud-caked kit into a pile for the next wash, and listened to childish lies and exaggerations as they stuck on plasters and rubbed in liniment. They eavesdropped through the cracks of doors to bedtime prayers: “Dear God, please make me an All Black,” then went to bed themselves, only to rise again in darkness, wrapped in a blanket, to stoke life back into the fire and tune the wireless to the crackling voice that told of the fortunes of the sons of farmers and loggers chasing a leather oval on the other side of the world.
Why is there such a depth of feeling for rugby in New Zealand? Why, when you tie together the pieces of this society, culture, country, why at the root and in the sap and trunk and through the branches and in every leaf, sometimes in your face, sometimes almost invisible, is there always this thread of rugby?
After all, isn’t it just a sport invented by a cheat and named after an English public school? Isn’t it just a muddy free-for-all on a Saturday afternoon? An excuse to spend the evening drinking beer with your mates? It’s only a game. Isn’t it?
On the east coast, motor cars are still an optional extra. Hell, they don’t thread through trees too well, they get stuck in ruts, and have you ever tried to round up sheep with one? At Te Araroa, spectators still come down out of the hills on horseback to watch rugby matches. There is a corral inside the ground, but horses are tethered to the outside fence when the riders don’t want to pay the entry fee. In the old days, one spectator told me, they would stay all day, with one person sent home to milk the cows.
Fresh sea breezes blow in off the Pacific, stopping hard against a sheer cliff, at the foot of which sits the Te Araroa clubhouse and field. There is no stand as such, nowhere to sit unless you drag a stool out on to the decking where spectators stand one deep, their tinnies resting on the flat guard rail in front of them.
Inside, the clubhouse is much the same as what you will find in any rural rugby community: the bare minimum of carpeting and decoration, a bar for drinks, a counter for food and fading team pictures on the walls. At Te Araroa a visitors’ changing room has been tacked on midway between the bar and the Gents. It was made out of an old wool shed, and either it wasn’t finished or the East Coast were engaged in some form of gamesmanship, because when the opposing Thames Valley captain went outside for the toss, the handle fell off the door, trapping his team inside.
On the East Coast, after Friday comes Rugbyday. That’s when people congregate, friends catch up, gossip spreads and courtships start. First to arrive are the women, to prepare the food, and children, who warm up the playing field with games of barefoot rugby. The men come last, many looking as if they have broken off from fixing a fence or moving a flock, dressed in a uniform of Swanni, gumboots and hat. There are Rastafarian red, green and yellow woollen hats for the young, while older men, wearing the tattoos of rugby on their faces, watch from under wide-brimmed hats with the steady gaze of veterans.
At the game I was watching it was the women, who had probably never played and wished they had, who made most of the noise. Single shouts rose clear above the murmur, urging, ribbing, threatening. Sometimes the crowd reacted as one, laughter rolling around the edges of the field like a breaking wave. Or an indignant growl would rise at some perceived injustice.
Rugby in such out-of-the-way places has a laid-back allure. Once, so the story goes, when the East Coast hosted the New Zealand Colts (the national under-21 side), a hangi being prepared behind the goalposts got out of control, and so much smoke drifted across the field that a horse wandered on unnoticed. Another time, when the Coast team was on tour, so many players suffered injury that the bus driver was drafted into the side.
Ruatoria, an hour or so south of Te Araroa, has a population of only 700, but boasts three rugby teams, one optimistically called City. Here spectator fashion tends more towards leatherwear and tattooed faces. I saw no horses at the ground. Instead, the field was surrounded by cars, horns honking every time a try was scored.
On the field, greyed heads packed down alongside dreadlocks. Two pregnant women, similarly dressed in oversize jumpers, ploughed separate furrows along the touchline. Shoulders thrown back, chins held high, they invested their pregnant waddle with an Amazonian strut. Perhaps they were imbuing their unborn offspring with the ambience of rugby.
The game was not a classic. The ball was dropped enough times to make an All Black coach go bungy jumping with a bootlace. But could those boys run! Never in one match have I seen so many weaving forays, ball clutched tightly in hand, a scraggle of players in pursuit, support or semi-retirement; the greater the stretch of the waistband elastic, the greater the distance behind the ball.
One moment summed up East Coast rugby for me. A player attempted to field a high ball and dropped it ignominiously on the ground. He caught the rebound and, in disgust, drop-kicked it 50 metres up the field where it struck the goalpost and bounced over the crossbar for a spectacular but invalid score.
While Rugby’s immediate origins are well known, its deeper roots go back to ancient times. Playing sport began as practice for survival, anthropologists tell us—as a way of honing the skills of hunting and combat. Artwork from the civilisations of Greece, Rome, China and the Aztecs show players in games not unlike rugby, where a ball is being handled. The game of football (where all limbs could be utilised) flourished in medieval England at a time when the penalty for causing a public brawl was death. It served as a legal form of warfare. If players visited all manner of atrocities on each other, then it was only part of the game (a cry not unknown today). Reports of a contest in 1763 between Sheffield and Norton stated that “though many were injured, fortunately none were killed.”
The ball usually became trapped within a heaving, shoving melee, and so the basic positions became set. The more robust went “forward” to secure it, while the fleeter of foot stayed “back” to run with it.
Last century, the great English public schools took this common man’s folly, civilised it with conventions suited to their individual playing areas and used it as a tool to fashion character.
One of these sports, The Eton Wall Game, is still played today on a piece of grass bounded on one side by a long stone wall and on the other by a footpath. Players score by striking the ball against a tree at one end and a small door at the other. The playing area is 120 yards long, but as it is only six yards wide, matches tend to form an interminable scrum, and goals are scarce—on average, one every two years.
At Rugby School they had larger playing fields, on which, it is claimed, William Webb Ellis was the first to break a convention and run with the ball. The main reason why the sport was given the name which distinguished it from soccer was probably that Rugby was the first school to publish its rules—on August 28, 1845.
The game came to New Zealand 25 years later, straight out of another English public school, Christ College, Finchley. Its champion was Charles Monro, son of Sir David Monro, then Speaker of the New Zealand Parliament. The first rugby match took place in Nelson on May 14, 1870, when Town beat College by two goals to nil. Like rabbits and gorse, this new import from the Mother Country thrived in the young colony. But why?
What about soccer, a sport that internationally dwarfs any other for popularity? Why did that not become the sport of choice in New Zealand? “Rugby flourishes where life is tougher,” write Carwyn James and John Reason in their book The World of Rugby. The heartlands of rugby have traditionally been the South African veldt, the slag-scarred valleys of South Wales and the farmland of New Zealand.
Back then, this country was the backblock at the end of the world. Farms, towns and roads had to be carved out of inhospitable terrain. Goods took months to arrive by ship. If it broke, you fixed it. If it did not exist, you built it. Distractions were few, and generally home-made. You raced your horse, drank your beer and fought your land wars. Rugby replaced the last of these.
The first Maori bishop, Frederick Bennett, said rugby had “sublimated the warlike passions of the Maori people.” The same went for the Pakeha. Rugby was war with rules. And fewer casualties.
When Kiwis were fighting on the battlefields of Europe in two world wars, official sport came to a virtual stop, yet rugby continued to be played by soldiers wherever there was a scrap of flat land: in the desert, in the jungle and even inside the barbed wire of prisoner-of-war camps.
Service games were also organised to maintain morale. Soon after the New Zealand evacuation from Greece and Crete, Bernard Freyberg, commander of 2NZEF (and later to become Governor-General), organised a match against a South African team on a stretch of hard sand beside the sea. To ensure the game was not disrupted, he deployed a couple of destroyers offshore, posted anti-aircraft guns in the surrounding sandhills and had fighter planes circling overhead.
Field Marshal Montgomery organised a rugby match as a decoy before the battle of El Alamein, to try and trick the enemy into believing that no major offensive was planned. Apparently, the Germans did spot the game, and concluded that Allied morale must be at an all-time low if the soldiers were fighting among themselves.
Such matches were serious contests, the participants being men hardened to the realities of injury and death. Rugby or war, the same basic Kiwi philosophy applied: “no mates and no prisoners taken.” Even rank went by the boards. During one match a major hurtled down the sideline with a teammate of inferior rank unmarked inside him.”With you Major, pass to me, Sir.”No response.”Pass, you selfish bastard, pass!”
The ball was immediately sent out, and a try scored. After the war, a New Zealand Army team known as the Kiwis was selected from troops in Egypt and Europe, with many players being specially flown to Britain from prisoner-of-war camps in Germany for trials. The Kiwis played an open style of rugby before huge and appreciative crowds which had been starved of top-class sport during the war years.
In Peacetime, the Ranfurly Shield became the “hill to be taken at all costs” within New Zealand rugby. It was donated in 1902 by Lord Ranfurly, then Governor of New Zealand, and originally depicted soccer players. Even after alteration, the “log o’ wood” (as it came to be known) was not highly prized. At one stage, concerned at the effect Shield matches were having on club rugby, Auckland tried to give it back to the New Zealand Union. But gradually, like a magic talisman, it began to take on a life of its own, nourished by the adrenalin of the players, the capacity grounds, the last-minute kicks at goal and (according to unconfirmed legend) the celebratory urine of the winning team.
With the Ranfurly Shield there is no league, no playoffs, no recourse and no excuses. In 80 minutes of play the trophy is won or lost in the most primitive of all contests: a challenge.
One of the most famous challenges took place in the 1920s when, after withstanding 24 challenges and establishing the first great Shield era, Hawkes Bay lost to Wairarapa. In the return match, known as the “Battle of Solway,” 3000 travelled from Hawkes Bay to watch. The vast crowd encroached on to the field, narrowing its width. Spectators took up every vantage point, perching in trees and sitting on the roof of an implement shed, which collapsed under the weight.
Hawkes Bay won a hard match 21-10, but Wairarapa protested that a Hawkes Bay player who had been away from the area looking for work had not been back long enough to satisfy eligibility requirements. Hawkes Bay were forced to hand the Shield over, but not to Wairarapa, who in the meantime had lost a provisional Shield game to Manawhenua (a provincial combination since disbanded).
Over the years, various regions have enjoyed a run of Ranfurly Shield dominance. In the 1940s, Otago was in the ascendancy. From 1960-63, Auckland defended a record number of 26 challenges. In the 1980s it was Canterbury’s reign, the team running up 25 consecutive defences by 1985. The 26th was against Auckland, and became known as the “challenge of challenges.”
On a sunny Canterbury day, with a huge crowd spilling on to the field, Auckland played sublimely, building to a lead of 24-3 at half time. But in the second half the momentum turned, and slowly Canterbury clawed their way back until they were down just 28-23. With time almost up, Canterbury hoisted a high ball over the Auckland line, which Aucklander John Kirwan was just able to scramble away with his fingertips before the final whistle went. The Shield went north once more.
Dramatic as these contests are, they only register half way up the rugby Richter Scale when compared to matches that have taken place on the international stage between New Zealand and that other southernmost sibling of what was once the British Empire, South Africa.
Apart from the minor distractions of World War II and apartheid, the two have slugged out the heavyweight championship of world rugby since 1921. Tours have alternated between the two countries, usually occurring once or twice a decade.
The first two series were drawn. In 1937, South Africa scored a knockdown, and then in 1949 whitewashed the All Blacks 4-0 in the first series after the Second World War. Two series defeats in a row.
When the Springboks came to New Zealand in 1956, the demons of those losses had to be exorcised. It was a fervour that ran throughout the country. With the series tied at one win apiece, for the third test the selectors recalled the veteran forward Kevin Skinner, a former amateur heavyweight boxing champion. Several South Africans felt the thud of the Skinner fist, and New Zealand won the match. In the next, which secured the series, the hero was Peter Jones, partly for his tearaway try, running 35 yards without a hand being laid on him, but more so for articulating the relief of a nation when he announced into a radio microphone in the vernacular of a North Auckland fisherman, “I’m absolutely buggered.”
Apartheid had been in the wings since the very first tour in 1921, when a New Zealand telegraph operator was dismissed for leaking a South African correspondent’s report of the Maori XV match which read: “Bad enough having play team officially designated NZ natives but spectacle thousands of Europeans frantically cheering on band of coloured men to defeat members of own race was too much for Springboks, who frankly disgusted.”
But apartheid began increasingly to intrude, until in 1981, almost 100 years after the new sport of rugby had eased the tensions of a growing nation, it was the Molotov cocktail that blew it apart. Groups such as HART (Halt All Racist Tours) led a groundswell of opposition to the Springbok tour that year, until the whole country seemed polarised into two camps. One side argued that politics had no place in sport; the other said the two could not be separated. It was civil war, not with guns, but certainly with bottles, clubs and batons. The rugby took place behind barbed wire and 40-foot containers, while outside pitched battles took place on the streets between police and protestors.
Into this pressure cooker, for the deciding match of the series, came 21-year-old Gary Whetton. He hardly slept the night before, as protestors kept up a chant around the hotel. Next morning, the team left at 8.30 (though the game was not until the afternoon) because police feared attempts would be made to block the Harbour Bridge. “We walked through all the jeers from the protestors. It was quite an atmosphere. Once on the bus the police told us, ‘Right, lads, just so you know, we are not stopping for anything—red lights, whatever.’ We formed this huge convoy on the motorway, and cars would dodge in and out of traffic and stray between some of the vehicles in the convoy. But the police just moved through the convoy, got the cars out of the way . . . were just about getting their batons out at times. I can’t describe the tension.”
Eden Park was a fortress. The South Africans had been sleeping at the ground for three days. Time moved slowly. “If I could have got out of the match at that stage, I would have. I was feeling the pressure that much,” said Whetton.
On the relative cocoon of the rugby field, New Zealand went to a 16-3 half time lead. In the second half the South Africans surged back, while overhead a light plane swept over the ground dropping flour bombs. One felled All Black Gary Knight.
“Don’t use water,” referee Clive Norling shouted to the St John Ambulance man. “He’ll turn to paste and we’ll never be able to move him!”
With one minute remaining on the ground clock, South Africa scored a try to level the scores 22-22. The conversion attempt was taken by Naas Botha, a master of timing and technique, dubbed “the man who never misses.” The whole of New Zealand watched and waited as the well-struck ball spiralled upwards . . . and shaved the outside of the post. Time was up on the ground clock, but because of all the stoppages to clear up flares, fire bombs and flour bombs, the match continued. Six minutes into overtime, New Zealand won the match with a penalty kick, the soaring ball succinctly symbolising the nation as it divided two poles. Two minutes later, the referee’s whistle ended probably the most dramatic rugby match ever played.
It was a new integrated South Africa that hosted the 1995 World Cup (having been excluded from the previous two tournaments because of apartheid). The two old rivals met again at Ellis Park, Johannesburg, in a final of simmering intensity, fighting each other to a standstill through the normal 80 minutes. South Africa finally won it in extra time. Once again, the difference between the two nations was the smallest scoring value, one kick of a ball between two uprights.
Even as I write this, the All Blacks have just won their first-ever series in South Africa by winning the second test at Pretoria by the margin of one converted try, with South Africa pawing within inches of their line as the final whistle blew.
In Westport, there is a monument that no tourist has ever snapped a camera at. It is a hobson jobson of spare parts—railway sleepers, industrial springs, a section of telegraph pole, pipes, nuts and bolts all joined and welded together with crude but ingenious skill. For ballast it has two large concrete slabs. For resistance, back up the coach’s ute and pull up the handbrake a notch or two. It is a homemade scrum machine.
As the Arc de Triomphe exemplifies the elegance of French culture, so does this primitive but effective device express the spartan essence of New Zealand rugby. There is no luxury. Anywhere. Play club rugby and you’ll change in a shed with pigeons scrabbling on a tin roof above your head. Play at the international stadiums of Carisbrook or Eden Park and, even though there are thousands of plastic bucket seats above you, you’re still changing in a shed.
Typically, the walls are bare except for a fading lick of paint and perhaps an old sponsor’s poster. Usually there is no window. If there is, it is small and the glass is frosted. Try to open it and you’ll find the hinges are rusted solid. The floor will be bare, except for maybe an old piece of carpet rejected by a dog from its kennel. In one corner might be a strapper’s (masseur’s) bench, foam poking through the plastic covering. Nothing else. Just bare wooden slats for seats, and hooks to hang clothes on.
When empty, it is as bleak as a prison cell, and the air staler. Yet it comes alive on match day, filled by a chaos of naked and semi-naked male bodies, bags and clothes strewn everywhere, replete with the sounds and smells of rugby, the short, barked phrases of men of action, the laughter that sits well back in the throat, the biting aroma of liniment, the manly cocktail of leather and polish, the gunpowder elixir of sweat and drying mud.
The only other time the shed sees some activity is during training, which always seems to take place on desolate fields raked by chill winds and illumined by inadequate floodlights which are always turned on grudgingly late.
You can get close to the players at training. The closer you get, the more you realise that rugby is about impact, and the greatest impact is in the scrum. Forget running with the ball; it’s the scrum that sets rugby apart Playing in the front row of the scrum has been compared to being thrown against a brick wall with 800 kg at your back. Get it wrong and you can break your neck. In the last two decades 53 people have suffered severe spinal injuries playing in the front row of the scrum—many of those never to walk again. Get it right and you are cheek to jowl with your enemy, sparks flying off each other’s bristles, his bad breath up your nose while he whispers sweet annihilations in your ear.
At Dunedin, when the Otago forwards were called to scrum training they noticeably hardened. Even though the opponent was only a machine with brakes that went into the ground like ploughshares, banter came to a standstill and blank masks fell across faces out of which eyes stared like torchlights in a dark tunnel. A boxer can step back, a matador can spin away from a charging bull, but a scrum has no respite nor mercy, no time nor space, only shuddering impact.
It is said the best front row forwards are 30 years old when they are born and remain that age until they retire. They have the bare quorum of teeth for chewing raw meat, and no necks, their heads growing straight out of their shoulders, with jug handles for ears. All that remains of the face is a skull jutting through scar tissue. Yet accuse a forward of any wrongdoing and wings sprout from his back and his halo glistens in the sunlight. “Who, me, ref? Surely you are mistaken.”
Forwards’ ears seldom come in matching pairs. Depending on scrum position, one might puff up, needing regular drainage, while the other stays down. Broken noses also come in several varieties: flattened rubber, concave, marked by a ridge or bent sideways. Ask front rowers why they play there and the answers are primeval. Pressure on the front row of the scrum affects the whole team, they say. The scrum is about intimidation. It is one-on-one combat, chin-on-chin. The scrum establishes dominance, and dominance wins the game.
In the unofficial Front Row Union, what separates the craftsman from the journeyman is not just courage and muscle but craftiness and niggle; stealing an extra advantage or inciting your opponent to react and give away the penalty. “You cheat until you get caught,” one front row forward told me. “You play the rules to the limit, and the limit is when the referee blows his whistle.”
In the front row, violence is a brooding undercurrent barely restrained. When it occurs we condemn it, but are always fascinated enough to watch it in endless slow-motion replays. Separating the violence from rugby is like trying to filter moisture out of rain clouds. Perhaps the perfect match would not be one where there are no fights or confrontations, but simply one where nobody suffered lasting injury.
Track back through New Zealand rugby and you’ll find it is a history of great teams (the 1905 Originals, the 1924 Invincibles, who never lost a game) and great players (backs like George Nepia who would “play fullback for the Kingdom of Heaven vs. The Rest,” and Bert Cooke, “as fast as a hare, as elusive as a shadow”), but above them are the handful of Kha-Khans, the ones who command the ultimate respect: the hard men. Maurice Brownlie, said to be strong enough to pull his father’s car out of the river; Kevin Skinner, who bashed the ‘Boks in ’56; Wayne Shelford, who played on despite a shredded scrotum.
And then there’s Cohn Meads, the benchmark, the towering crag against which all others are judged. With dark eyes staring meaningfully out of a rhinoceros head upon a 6 ft 4 in, 16-stone frame, Meads had the size and the strength, but it was the fire stoked inside him which gave him the intimidating presence on the rugby field that Mike Tyson carries in the ring.
In our society the legal system draws a clear line between civilised conduct and violence. On the field that line is blurred. Meads walked straight down the middle of it, as committed and unyielding a player as ever took the field, sometimes hard and fair, sometimes dispensing outlaw justice with smoking five-knuckle peacemakers, either way carving his own monument out of other player’s bodies.
In his book Life with the Lions, John Hopkins records some of those Meads encounters. “He knocked out Welshman David Watkins. He hit Jeff Young, breaking Young’s jaw, because the Welsh hooker had committed the rugby crime of pulling a jersey. Kenny Catchpole’s misfortune was to be caught in a nick head down, one leg protruding like a ship’s mast from amidst the heaving bodies. Meads grabbed it, ripped it as he might a chicken bone, and the Australian’s international career had virtually ended.”Reflecting on his misdemeanours, Meads commented, “I don’t think that anyone plays for a country as long as I did and remains popular everywhere.”
Rugby is rich in traditions passed down from one generation to the next (a rugby generation being about one decade, the difference between the youngest and the oldest players in a senior team).
To an outsider, some of the traditions seem trivial, outmoded, a throwback to Ellis’s era. Take the aftermatch function. After the game, players get straight into their “number ones”—blazer, club tie and slacks. They comb their hair and pay sober attention while captains and club presidents make speeches and give each other team pins or pennants or ties. Further speeches praise the main sponsor (usually the local brewery) and the performance of the other team (no matter how badly they played).
Scrap them, I say! Let’s modernise the aftermatch. Get in some dancing girls, or pipe beer straight into the showers so the players never have to get out. Of course, it will never happen. All those club officials with their shortback-and-sides haircuts know it’s dangerous to tamper with tradition.
At St Stephens, the Maori boarding school set in the Bombay Hills, the tradition is for the home team to run on to the paddock through a tunnel of schoolboys chanting the school haka. I wasn’t expecting it, and the shrill voices penetrated not only the cold winter air, but right into my Welsh soul.
Translated into English, they chanted, “Who are you to come here to try and take my pride and tradition away from me? We at St Stephens will defend our pride, our tradition, our mana to the end.”
But I didn’t need the words to understand that, or any other haka. They never fail to affect me. It starts with a prickling along the back of my neck, as if a cactus is being gently rolled over the skin. Then mists start to rise before my eyes, and a strange alchemical mix stills my limbs and hones my senses. At that point, to be a spectator is to be a slave. I long to throw off the cloak of civility, flare my nostrils, tighten my sinews and throw myself into the warrior fray.
Immediately after the St Stephens haka, the schoolboy “tunnel” compacted into a cohesive throng of bodies that kept up a series of raw, rhythmic chants throughout the game. I edged closer, eager to catch the words and absorb the finer points of the culture. It turned out that the chants were more rock ‘n’ roll than rugby—”When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Everybody, Let’s Rock.”
Their opponents that day were Kelston High, from West Auckland, a school with a high Polynesian content. Opposite the amorphous St Stephens choir a Polynesian banged away at a painted oil drum.
At one point, a hush fell over the spectators when St Stephens were awarded a penalty. The kicker placed the ball and stepped back. A glance at the posts, an intake of breath and he started his run forward. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! went the Kelston drum. Immediately a sea of arms rose like rattlesnakes on the other side of the field, faces contorted with outrage, chanting words of obvious ferocity—but all in complete silence.
The great rugby-playing schools like St Stephens, Te Aute, Auckland Grammar and others all have their own individual traditions, some so subtle they are almost atmospheric. Yet if the schools were the only keepers of tradition, rugby would be a minority sport. There is one tradition that is shared by all. For the schoolboy it is a dream of hope; for the overweight, middle-aged Kiwi male it is the Chateau Lafite that lies in the cellar, cherished but unopened. A reminder of what could have been .. . if only. What is this lofty amibition? To be an All Black.
Few, of course, will wear the hallowed black jersey, and they have to be willing to make their sacrifices. When an injured finger went septic, Dick “Red” Conway had it cut off rather than miss playing for the 1960 side.
To be an All Black is to enter an almost mystical company, the stuff of King Arthur and Robin Hood. All Blacks are tapu. They wear an invisible cloak of feathers—the mark of highest mana.
The beginnings of the All Black legend probably lie in the NZ Natives, who toured Britain in 1888. The team consisted of 26 players, 21 with Maori blood. It was the captain of that tour, Tom Ellison, also known as Tamati Erihana, who later suggested that the 1905 team should wear the same uniform of “Black Jersey with Silver Fernleaf, Black Cap with Silver Monogram.”
That 1905 tour, the Originals, incorporating players chosen from all of New Zealand, is usually taken as the seminal year for the All Blacks. At the time, though, the touring New Zealanders were merely items of curiosity. As one Englishman remarked. “What? New Zealand coming to play against the clubs and counties of England? Well, was there ever such a cheek!”
Back in New Zealand, an underpopulated outpost of the mighty British Empire, they could not have expected too much as they waited eagerly for the telegraphic transmissions on which the newspaper reports were reliant.
One such message was read by the bemused subeditor of a London paper. He immediately altered the clumsy transmission error. New Zealand 5; Devon 4.
But the true score hurried its way along the telegraphic lines to a stunned colony. New Zealand 55; Devon 4.
By the end of the tour, the nickname which was perhaps started in humour was cast in All Black iron. The bare facts are staggering: 34 matches played, 33 won; a colossal 830 points scored, a mere 39 conceded.
The team had the advantage of being led by two astute thinkers, captain David Gallaher and vice-captain Billy Stead. It also had gifted players such as Billy Wallace (known as “Carbine” after the famous racehorse) and Jimmy Hunter, whose record of 44 tries on a tour still stands today.
But bare statistics alone do not create legend. There must be drama and that most elusive element of all, myth. In Wales, that cathedral of passion, the team found it.
The New Zealanders were carrying injuries and tiring when they arrived in Cardiff, to be greeted by an enormous crowd. The Welsh in 1905 were in the middle of one of their golden ages, their menfolk hardened by working at pit and furnace. They had been watching the visiting team’s progress with steely, calculating eyes.
Forty thousand attended the match, with many more locked out. Tour Manager George Dixon described the scene: “the New Zealand team chanting a haka’ and the Welsh team responded by singing ‘Land of My Fathers,’ the whole vast swaying crowd, men and women alike, joining in. It was a wonderful sight and the air was electric with excitement.”The dried black ink on the pages of the record books states that Wales scored the only try, winning 3-0.
But every New Zealander knows differently.In the second half, New Zealander Billy Wallace made a strong run and broke through the Welsh defence. Confronted by the Welsh fullback Winfield, he threw out a pass to Bob Deans, who caught it and raced for the line. In Wallace’s own words, “Instead of going straight ahead, he veered in towards the goal-line. Teddy Morgan, the Welsh wing threequarter, was coming across fast from the other wing and Bob was becoming a little exhausted. Bob saw Morgan in time and altered his course to straight ahead and just grounded the ball six inches over the line.”
The referee, who, according to George Dixon, was dressed in “ordinary walking boots, no buttons or bars, and clad in ordinary clothing, including the orthodox high collar” was 30 yards behind the play. By the time he got there, so legend has it, the Welsh had dragged both player and ball back on to the field of play. Despite protests, the try was not awarded, and so the team lost their unbeaten record.
Over the years, an enormous body of evidence has been amassed around the incident, including “confessions” by Welsh players and the referee decades after the match. When Deans died just two years later, his deathbed words were, “I did score the try.”Thus was the sport of rugby irrevocably welded into the national identity. New Zealanders have been trying to score that try ever since.
But for how much longer? Rugby has an oral tradition, and oral traditions tend to wither in literate societies. Few of today’s young players will appreciate the drama of the 1905 Welsh match, or will know this poem toasting the 1924 Invincibles:
“To the shining leaf and jersey black,
To the journey without defeat.
To the mighty heart of the striving pack,
And the runners with flying feet.”
Rugby first came under assault in 1893, when a group of cloth-capped Englishmen formed the Northern Union (later named Rugby League) so that players could actually be paid. It took another century for the dinosaurs of Rugby Union administration to catch up. Even then, the issue was forced on them by a TV rights dogfight between Australian media magnates Murdoch and Packer. To seduce players into his Super League fold, Murdoch threw treasure chests at them. Attacking Murdoch, Packer threatened to start a professional Rugby Union organisation. Either way, the dirty dollar was set to steal away the best rugby players. So the dinosaurs roused from their slumber, blinked into the sunlight, and rugby went professional.
League had already been making inroads into rugby’s traditional base. Hillary Commission figures show that from 1987 to 1995, League membership grew from 27,750 to 39,803 while Union’s membership declined from 207,907 to 155,000. But at club level League players get pocket money at best. League’s attraction is simpler rules and an image that has been pumped up by the visual steroid of television.
In modern sport, TV is God. It subtly refashions the rules (the ball is now less likely to disappear into a thicket of legs in a maul where the camera can’t follow) as well as the way we watch it. Ever missed a piece of action at a live match and then expected to see a slow-motion replay? What TV gives back is money, an audience of a size that could never fit into any stadium, and a different kind of oral history—one based on commentaries and image bites.
What about the oldest traditions? The ones that are almost invisible. Will they disappear? Is rugby becoming a cotton wool computer game between two-dimensional warrior icons? A packaged gladiatorial soap opera? Is a modern city lifestyle moving us too far away from the harshness of the pioneer past? Are Kiwis going soft?
The answer for the average man is undoubtedly yes. The rapid growth of Touch Rugby is a pointer to this trend. From 1988, when figures were first recorded, to 1995, membership in rugby’s little sister grew from 24,000 to 79,400. Many city dwellers, it seems, want the exhilaration without the impact.
But don’t weight machines and training regimes make modern players stronger and fitter? Doesn’t professionalism make for higher standards? Aren’t players better coached? And aren’t all the strongest provincial teams ,‘Pntred around big cities such as Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin? Surely that means our modern society of welfare handouts, petty bureaucracies and takeaway food can produce men who are just as hard as their pioneer grandfathers. Take Robin and Zinzan Brooke, the competitive steel within the current All Blacks. Their province is Auckland. Townies, both of them. So that proves it, doesn’t it?
Sorry, but the fighting Brooke brothers were brought up on a North Auckland farm where the vegetable patch was a necessity, not a hobby. Takeaway food meant going out and digging it up. The only handout was when the spade got pressed into their hand. They practised on their own 30-acre rugby field, and the nearest thing to a computer game was urinating on an electric fence.
There will always be robust men to play—and spectators willing to get up in the middle of the night to watch them—but the steel wire link with the pioneer past is the central tradition of rugby, and unless it is maintained, one day rugby might become just a game.