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September 24, 2007 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

R.I.P. Rugby

Week in and week out this column has been bringing you tales of death, mainly because I like to think about how things end. Yet, at times of such great national importance such as these, it is important that we put away our morbid sensibilities, and give thanks to something which actually stops people from dying: rugby.

Okay, so that’s an overstatement – you cannot actually stop people from dying. As my friend George once said, “life is a sexually transmitted infection with a one hundred per cent mortality rate.” But rugby allows New Zealand to vent its warrior pride without actually going to war. We often regard the worship of rugby as a substitute for the worship of the gods: “our national religion.” I hold that it is also a substitute for war. It is no coincidence that New Zealand has one of the lowest rates of military spending in the world (1.1% of GDP, and a teeny GDP at that), while also possessing, in All Black rugby, perhaps the most war-like mass sporting event in the world.

Yes, rugby is also the national game of South Africa and Wales. But neither of them have Ka Mate, a war-chant written by that great conqueror Te Rauparaha (whom many in Ngai Tahu still regard as a war criminal) about a hairy man. American Football is so decked out in nancy-pants armour and helmets and so stilted by time-outs that it only serves to frustrate and amplify US militarism, whereas the raw brutality of a good ruck allows the common kiwi to go about their day in peace.

Rugby is such a good substitute for war that one has to be careful when pitting two teams against each other. In football, when a great team like Brazil plays a nobody, the result is an embarrassing one-sided score; in rugby, where size really matters, the result of such a mismatch can be more serious. In the 1995 world cup, a Cote d’Ivoire player was paralysed after being tackled by the mighty Tongans.

The All Blacks also serve as a racial unifier: because the redneck element in New Zealand is also fervently rugby-obsessed, the benefit of having a hell-raising Samoan flanker on their side serves to temper their fury at “overstayers” (though not to extinguish it). Indeed, the greatest thing about All Blacks rugby is the way it has always linked Polynesian and European kiwis together – the first ever NZ side to tour the British Isles (in 1888) was called the “New Zealand Native Team” yet contained five lily-white Pakeha.

Imagine how the concept of such a biracial team would have gone down in the USA, where black players had been barred from major league baseball the year before.

On the other hand, our stability as a nation is so bound up with the All Blacks that, when things get hairy in this country, rugby is often the focal-point for our self-destruction. The 1981 Springbok Tour is often cited as a) the closest we have ever come to civil war, and b) proof that rugby fans are all bigots. a) is blatantly false, given the land wars of the 1860s and the waterfronts strikes of 1913 and ’51. b) is also unfair, since the strife of 1981 was really the result of Muldoon lying to everyone, and not the fault of rugby itself. Why do I say this? Because “sport and politics should be kept separate” was the main reason Muldoon used to justify playing South Africa, yet in 1980 he had supported the American-led boycott of the Moscow Olympics. The words “lying piece of shit” seem rather apt.

Rugby is also linked to violence. Police in Christchurch recently launched ‘Operation Crusader’ to target post-match hooliganism. And in November 2003, after the All Blacks lost a world cup semi-final, the National Collective of Independent Women’s Refuges stated that a massive increase in incidents of domestic violence had occurred on the night of the loss. But as with the ’81 tour, we need to separate rugby from the taking-too-seriously of rugby.

In an interview earlier this year, All Black hooker, patron of the arts, and environmental campaigner Anton Oliver told us to stop treating rugby as if it really matters. Oliver bemoaned the fact that “if we’re to lose a game the economy goes plummeting down and domestic violence goes up.” Current and former All Blacks such as Oliver, John Kirwan with his mental-health awareness campaign, and Rhodes Scholar/World Cup winning captain David Kirk, who withdrew from a 1986 tour of South Africa on moral grounds, demonstrate that rugby does not have to be a game for meat-heads alone.

Of course, the fact that rugby is so important to New Zealand as a substitute for war and religion, means that we will always take it too seriously – and that new racial groups will never be really accepted unless they start providing All Blacks. But hey, what would you rather have: a bit too much rugby aggro, or guns, god, and racial disharmony?


About the Author ()

Tristan Egarr edited in 2008. He threw a chair once.

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