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April 29, 2013 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

State of the Union

It was at the end of Foreskin’s Lament, Greg McGee’s monumental 1981 play about rugby and identity, that Foreskin, well, gave his lament. The last six lines repeated the one question: “Whaddarya?” It was addressed to the audience, but could just as easily apply to all New Zealand. With Anzac Day’s recent passing, now is as good a time as any to reflect on where New Zealand identity stands today. So, New Zealand, whaddarya? Still a man’s country of “rugby, racing and beer”, or a bunch of soccer-watching,* Chardonnay-swilling pussies?


Whether we like it or not, in New Zealand, rugby is inescapable. Our TV screens are full of the All Blacks advertising everything from Up&Go to Rexona deodorant; our billboards are plastered with Dan Carter pouting in his Jockeys; and our newspapers breathlessly tell us all about our All Blacks’ latest indiscretions. It is even said that All Blacks matches can have a profound effect on election results—National’s 2011 triumph was, supposedly, at least partly helped by a surge of World-Cup-related national pride.

But how did it come to this? And is rugby really still that important today? In order to answer these questions, we must first take a look at the long and storied history of rugby union in this fine land.

Let’s start from the start: sadly, the creation story, in which an English schoolboy named William Webb Ellis picked up the ball during a game of football in 1823 and ran with it, is almost certainly fictional. But in any case, rugby union had emerged as a distinct sport in England by 1895, the year in which the rugby-league schism took place, and by which time the various forms of football played in the mid-1800s had developed into separate codes, the most notable other one being soccer. At this stage, rugby in England was an upper-class game, played by boys in public schools (the equivalent of our private schools), where it, along with cricket, was used as a way of instilling discipline and building character in the future elites.

New Zealand rugby, while mostly free of such strong class connotations, in many ways developed in parallel with English rugby. The variety of different ball games played here only really became codified as rugby union after the establishment of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (today’s NZRU) in 1892. But the genesis of rugby’s crucial role in New Zealand identity lies in the fabled Originals tour, in 1905. The first New Zealand national rugby team to tour outside Australasia unexpectedly swept all before them, winning 34 out of 35 games against the national teams of Scotland, Ireland, England, Wales and France, as well as various British and Canadian provincial teams. The newly christened ‘All Blacks’ became national heroes, Prime Minister Richard Seddon hailing these “stalwart and athletic sons” as proof of the benefits of life in the colonies.

To a certain extent, 1905 can be said to be the start of a growing sense of ‘New-Zealand-ness’, but it was decades at least before a New Zealand identity, as distinct from a British one, took hold. In the meantime, rugby blossomed, becoming the sport of choice for New Zealand males. It brought communities together, arguably fostering a sense of fair play and egalitarianism which persists in modern conceptions of New Zealand identity. And at the same time, the All Blacks continued their winning ways over the decades, their mystique growing ever greater. Thus, the primarily male team game of rugby became increasingly intertwined with a burgeoning pride in our New-Zealandness, in much the same way, for example, that ice hockey has for Canadians, cricket has for Indians or Australians, or ‘threatening nuclear warfare’ has for North Koreans.

As Victoria Associate Professor of Psychology Marc Wilson explains, “several decades of research” indicates that “we particularly value identities that make us different from others”, and that we attach some of our self-esteem to “the groups and things with which we identify”. Just like the examples above, New Zealanders value rugby as part of our national identity because we are so damn good at it; this (along with Māori culture) is our point of difference from the rest of the world.

Any other sports team, national or otherwise, would kill to have the All Blacks’ current all-time winning percentage of 75.5 per cent, and since the introduction of the International Rugby Board’s official world rankings in September 2003, the All Blacks have been ranked first for nearly three-quarters of the time, including continuously since November 2009. They also—you may have noticed—won the most recent World Cup in 2011. No wonder then, that they are such a dominant part of the national psyche. This is compounded by the fact that we have “relatively few eggs in our national-identity basket”, as Wilson delightfully puts it—without rugby, what else would we have?

Of course, one could argue that rugby, at least in the last few decades, has lost some of its allure for New Zealanders. It has generally been a unifying force in the past; but, with the 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand, the climax of over 30 years of controversy around sporting contacts with apartheid-era South Africa, rugby became for the first time, in the words of Victoria Professor of History Charlotte Macdonald, “a point of division and dissent”. Protesters took to the streets and the stadiums in their thousands, famously stopping two matches in Hamilton and Auckland from taking place, and disrupting others. The stark (and often violent) divide between pro- and anti-tour elements ensured that rugby lost much of its popularity in subsequent years.

However, Macdonald suggests that the events of 1981 did not diminish but in fact reinforced rugby’s importance. If the issue had been, for example, playing badminton with South Africa, it is hard to imagine the reaction being quite so vehement. Quite simply, rugby mattered that much to us. And in any case, New Zealand’s love of rugby was restored when the All Blacks won the inaugural World Cup on home soil in 1987.

Some would also argue that the growing popularity of other sports in New Zealand has diminished rugby’s importance. In recent years, the number of schoolchildren playing soccer has for the first time overtaken those playing rugby. Rugby league is increasingly gaining a foothold, especially in Auckland. Regardless, neither sport has overtaken rugby in terms of importance to our national identity. The All Whites have qualified for two World Cups in their history—in 1982 and 2010. Both times, their ‘heroic’ efforts were hailed as signs that soccer’s time had come, and that rugby would wither away.

But frankly, it goes without saying that the All Whites, currently ranked 86th-equal in the world, losing all three games in 1982 and scraping three gutsy draws in 2010, and the Kiwis rugby-league team, forever in second-place to the Kangaroos (occasional upsets aside), utterly pale in comparison to the All Blacks. It goes back to Wilson’s idea that for us to value something as a part of our New Zealand identity, it must be a point of difference from the rest of the world. And we overwhelmingly value rugby, a truly national sport: the 2011 World Cup final was the most-watched TV event in New Zealand history (over 2 million people watched), and while rows of empty seats are a common sight in stadiums around the country, any All Blacks game is a guaranteed sell-out.

Perhaps a more pertinent issue is whether rugby can maintain its importance in an increasingly multicultural society. New Zealanders of Pacific Island descent have certainly made their mark in the game of rugby—Jonah Lomu, anyone?—and are overrepresented in the ranks of rugby players, but it’s worth asking whether rugby can appeal to Asian New Zealanders** and other relatively recent immigrants, who are becoming increasingly prominent in New Zealand. Despite comprising 9.2 per cent of the population in the 2006 Census, Asian New Zealanders make up just 6.6 per cent of all rugby players here, and zero per cent of professional ones.

Of course, rugby wants to compete for these new loyalties, as do other sports, in terms of attracting people to both watch and play the game. We may not see an Asian All Black for some time yet, and soccer may continue to grow in popularity, but Macdonald describes the “interesting contradiction” like this: “You’ve got more people playing [soccer], but we’re not very good at it. You’ve got fewer people playing [rugby], but we’re supremely good at it. What’s going to be the one that you want to be proud of?” Ultimately, no matter what ethnicity you are, what matters in sport is winning—an art the All Blacks have perfected. Until we have good reason to be prouder of our efforts in some other sport, until we get a bigger national self-esteem boost from the All Whites or Kiwis than the All Blacks, rugby will remain at the heart of New Zealand identity.

And so, it is fitting that the last word is left to Tupper, the grizzled old coach in Foreskin’s Lament, and his still-apt description of rugby’s importance in our identity. Just substitute ‘New Zealand’ for ‘the town’:

“This is a team game, son, and the town is the team. It’s the town’s honour at stake when the team plays, god knows there’s not much else around here.”



*Before anyone complains: yes, I know it’s properly called ‘football’ rather than ‘soccer’. I hate it when people call it ‘soccer’ too. But for the sake of absolute clarity, especially for non-fans, ‘soccer’ is the term I will use henceforth.

**The ‘Asian’ in ‘Asian New Zealanders’ refers, in this context, to all Asians, including those from the Indian subcontinent.


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