• Trying to Cut the All Blacks Down to Size

    Rugby, as we all know, is a tough game – and the contention it generates is not limited to the field itself.  The physical contest on the field is so intense that it is not surprising that collisions occur and injuries are suffered – and those episodes can in turn produce, all too easily, allegations of dirty play and breaches of the rules.

    Sadly, allegations of this sort seem to have become a feature over recent years of All Black matches in the northern hemisphere.  It is hard to avoid the suspicion that, the more often they win, the more frequent such charges become.

    The All Black record of success has been so extraordinary that it is not perhaps surprising that, rather than acknowledge that the better team won, disappointed fans will cast around for other explanations of All Black dominance.  Egged on often by home-town media, fans naturally seek solace by voicing suspicions that the All Blacks prevail, not by virtue of superior skills, tactics and commitment, but because they play illegally.

    Over much of his long and distinguished career, for example, Richie McCaw’s astonishing skill as a ball pilferer was attributed in some quarters to his ability to break the rules and get away with it.  Some supposed fans enjoyed referring to him as “Richie McCheat” – surely a mean-minded and ungenerous refusal to recognise one of the game’s greatest exponents.

    More recently, and particularly this year, All Black victories have been explained away on the grounds that the All Blacks “play dirty” and intentionally try to intimidate and injure their opponents.

    The supposed failure of the responsible officials to identify and punish such illegality is then explained by yet another popular myth – that referees are unwilling to apply the rules to the All Blacks, either because they are dazzled by the All Blacks’ reputation or are somehow frightened to do so.

    These myths are not reserved just for the post-match analysis.  They have increasingly become a factor during the game itself.  Fired up, no doubt, by the media, rugby crowds at All Black away games have quickly learned that they can put officials under considerable pressure by complaining loudly about supposed infractions of the rules – and it takes a strong-minded referee to withstand that kind of pressure.

    Why is it that these attitudes seem to come to the fore particularly in games against northern hemisphere opponents?  All Black victories against teams in the southern hemisphere are more usually given the worth they deserve – as simply reflections of superior ability.  All Black wins are, presumably, just as unpalatable to the supporters of the Springboks, Wallabies and Pumas, but are rarely greeted with the kind of complaints we hear when the ABs are playing on the end-of-season tour.

    It is presumably not that northern hemisphere crowds are markedly more ignorant than crowds elsewhere.  It seems rather to reflect a frustration and puzzlement that a small country from so far away can, with such impressive regularity and over such a long period, produce world-beating teams against countries whose rugby is supported by much larger financial resources and playing numbers.

    Rather, it seems, it is just too painful to accept that the All Blacks are just better exponents of what is their national game.  There must be a hidden explanation, if not in supposed thuggery and cheating, or incompetent referees, then perhaps in deviously luring players away from their Pacific homelands – though the composition of some of the current teams in the northern hemisphere means that we hear less of this calumny nowadays.

    I remember as a ten year-old listening in 1949 to radio reports as the exploits of a goal-kicking prop forward called Okey Geffin led to a 4-0 series whitewash of Fred Allen’s All Blacks in South Africa.  New Zealand rugby’s response?   They didn’t cry foul – they knuckled down and won the series against South Africa seven years later.

    All Black dominance will not, of course, last forever – but we should enjoy it while it does.  And when it does end, let us hope it’s not for too long, and that we react with more good sense and sportsmanship than is shown by those who lose to us today.

    Bryan Gould


    27 November 2016