• Who or What Is “Ridiculous?”

    Stephen Jones is the rugby correspondent for the Sunday Times.  He has a long record of, as he puts it, “winding up” the New Zealand rugby public by pooh-poohing New Zealand’s rugby success and criticising just about everything about the way it is played by the All Blacks and other New Zealand teams.

    It is perhaps unfortunate that a supposed expert on rugby matters should deliberately, on his own admission, fail in his duty to provide a balanced and accurate analysis to his own readership and give priority, rather, to the pleasure he apparently derives from irritating readers in another country.

    He then seeks to deflect the criticism that inevitably comes his way from those who dislike the obvious bias and spleen by accusing the New Zeal rugby public of being unable to “understand irony” – the classic defence of the intemperate across the ages.  A rugby correspondent worth the name might do better to focus on rugby rather than supposed irony.

    It is not that he is bravely ploughing a lonely furrow.  His bile is best regarded as the distillation of a puzzlement no doubt shared by many for whom the All Blacks’ success is an impenetrable mystery.  Rather than use what limited expertise he might possess to unlock the secret, he takes refuge in a range of explanations – the All Blacks cheat, they practise foul play, they are favoured by referees, and so on.  The possibility that the All Blacks, and New Zealand rugby in general, might be better – not on every occasion, but most of the time – cannot, apparently, be admitted.

    But he has now broken new ground.  He no longer limits himself to denigrating New Zealand rugby but has taken on the role of social critic.  We are treated to a further display of his supposed expertise when he says solemnly (oh, I forgot – with irony) that New Zealand is obsessed with rugby and that the obsession is “ridiculous”.

    I do not claim to be an expert commentator on rugby (though I share an interest in it or “obsession” as Stephen Jones would have it) but I do rather fancy myself as a student of New Zealand history and society.  It is true that many New Zealanders – but far from all, perhaps not even a majority – are proud of and interested in the dominance of world rugby (and I don’t think that is an over-statement) achieved by our teams.

    But there is no shortage of Kiwis who regret and criticise what they see as the intrinsic violence of rugby as a game, the macho and sexist attitudes it promulgates (though that has been tempered by the growth of women’s rugby and the success of the Black Ferns) and its record of accommodating apartheid – though that unfortunate episode now dates a long way back.

    To describe the country’s attachment to rugby as ridiculous, however, is to betray a total and disqualifying ignorance of rugby’s history and continuing role in this country.  Despite the understandable reservations felt by many Kiwis, most of us would – I believe – recognise the seminal influence rugby has had on our development as a nation.

    I recall my long and dear departed mother telling me how, as a girl, she and thousands of others would assemble in 1924 outside the Wellington Post Office to see the results, delivered by telegram, of another Invincibles victory posted on public display – and those triumphs, following on the success of the Originals of 1905, were hugely important in developing a national identity and in convincing us that a tiny and new-born nation could achieve distinction on the world stage.

    We now know that we can lead the world in many spheres – not a vainglorious claim, though no doubt producing a smirk from the Stephen Joneses of this world.  But it was rugby that first showed us that we could excel.

    Even more important were the other lessons we learned.  We could excel, even against our former colonial masters.  The skills and aptitudes needed for success in rugby seemed perhaps better developed in our small country than in countries with apparently much greater resources.

    Those skills and aptitudes were not only more likely to develop in a pioneering society where self-reliance, effort and teamwork were prized, but they were also – mirabile dictu – particularly suited to the combination of individual and collective effort that characterised Maori society and, in due course, that of the Pacific Islanders who made their homes in New Zealand.  There is probably no factor that has done more than rugby to bring races together and foster mutual respect in an integrated society that, while far from perfect, leads the world – yes, that again.

    I write this after the Lions’ deserved victory last week and before the game to decide the series on Saturday.  I don’t apologise for hoping that the ABs reinforce their claim to be the most successful team in the whole of international sport.  But if they lose, that’s rugby.  Nothing changes; they will live to fight – and win – again.  And rugby, with no help from Stephen Jones, will have done what it should be allowed to do – bring people and peoples together.

    Bryan Gould

    3 July 2017