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October 23, 2007

Blackshirt Rugby - a Colonial Psychosis: Lincoln Allison explains why he stopped admiring New Zealand rugby

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Lincoln Allison - Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton and the author of Amateurism in Sport: An Analysis and a Defence - explains why he stopped admiring New Zealand Rugby. Lincoln Allison argues that New Zealand's collective obsession with the superiority of their team displays a colonial psychosis.

The Rugby World Cup (henceforth RWC) ended with a 15-6 victory for South Africa over England in a tough, close game. I found it all enthralling, not least because the England coach, Brian Ashton, was my captain through the age group teams at school and we made our house, school and several other debuts together. A good, honest man and I wished him even more success than he achieved. It may yet happen because, even though we're getting on a bit, there is no reason why he should lose his job.

But, objectively, the most interesting day in the competition was Saturday 6th October when the first two quarter finals were played and Australia and New Zealand were knocked out by England and France respectively. In advance of the games attention had focussed on the comments of the Australian RFU Chairman, John "Chat Show" O'Neill to the effect that everyone "hated" England. Yet in the event the more significant result in its meaning and implications was the New Zealand one.

Nice country, New Zealand. Beautiful landscape, friendly people. Good white wine. (The word "surprisingly" has now been officially deleted from this last judgment.) So how come there was so much schadenfreude about the defeat of the "All Blacks" with grown men whooping and hand-smacking, exulting in the New Zealanders being on the plane home?

It was mirrored by the childish and unsporting hissy fits by elements of the New Zealand press and public. They was robbed (by an English referee). One match doesn't count: they are still the number one rugby team in the world. Anyway, they play better rugby than anyone else, proper rugby. It was entirely different when the England team edged out the French a week later. At every level the French accepted their narrow defeat with grace and sportsmanship: scratch a Frog and you find a Gent.

Surprisingly, perhaps, I think all the New Zealand claims are worth examining for what they reveal about their sporting culture, its differences from our own and the reasons for those differences.

The first claim is the least interesting. Sports fans all over the world tend to believe they was robbed - and they are generally right, given that close encounters at the highest level hinge on crucial refereeing decisions. But, for example, England football fans are a good deal more philosophical about this than New Zealand rugby fans appear to be. They mirror the professional attitude that what you get away with, you get away with - and that the foibles of the referee are part of the context, like the wind and the playing surface.

As it happens the England football team were virtually eliminated from the 2008 European Championships during RWC by a very bad decision on an artificial Russian pitch they should never have had to play on. Shit happens. Given FIFA's vast membership and obdurate refusal to use modern technology the standard of refereeing in football is much lower than in rugby or cricket or any of the major league American sports.

Actually the English referee, Wayne Barnes, now in receipt of New Zealand hate mail, didn't have that bad a game. His worst errors were on forward passes, but in fact players get away with these all the time because, given the speed of play and the number of players between the referee and the ball, they are very difficult to spot. One of the defining characteristics of the sportsman is the ability to accept bad decisions. How and why New Zealanders lost this are interesting questions.

"World number one". Well, yes, New Zealand do have an extraordinary ability to win what they call "tests" and what Englishmen of my age call friendly internationals. They are the inverse of the football world champions, Italy, who have a legendary ability to win only world cup games - and statistics differ only slightly from the legend in this matter.

But New Zealand have only won the inaugural RWC in 1987. And, frankly, this wasn't much of a victory: they played at home, South Africa were excluded and most of the rest were completely amateurish; England did not even inaugurate a national competition until the season after. In the five competitions since they have turned up as favourites and "choked".

In our culture this doesn't mitigate their achievements, it makes them complete failures. Because our culture is based on the unique importance of the Big Event. The audience for football's World Cup is four times that for any other football. Tim Henman may be the most successful British tennis player of the last 70 years, but he is a loser because he never won Wimbledon, the only tennis watched by most people, a status he accepts with dignified resignation. Colin Montgomerie is less phlegmatic about his failure to win a "major" despite winning more money than any other golfer in the history of the game in Europe. In many minor sports Olympic success is the only kind of success - and bad luck if you are ill or injured when the Games come round.

So New Zealanders can tell you until they are blue in the face about how they annihilated the British and Irish Lions; most people neither know nor care. It was not a Big Event, is not "listed", was not seen on free-to-air television.

There are some modern afficianados of the game who take the New Zealand claim seriously. They are people who buy rugby magazines, watch club rugby live and see Southern Hemisphere rugby on pay TV. At most there are a quarter of a million of them.

There are more of us old fogeys who believe that rugby (Union at least) was meant to be played, not watched, and retain some nostalgia for the days of amateurism when there were many more players than there are now and even the top players were normally sized human beings. But both of those categories are swamped in numbers by the 20 million Big Event sports fans whose only knowledge of the game is the World Cup and to them the All Blacks are just losers.

They play better rugby? Antipodean rugby writers and web contributors tend to stress that England success is "bad for the game" because England are not "entertaining".

This may be true in the curious milieu of Australia where Rugby Union struggles to compete with three other codes of football. But in the vastly greater realm of Britain and Europe it is entirely misconceived. From ITV down to the pubs RWC 2007 was an unprecedented and unexpected commercial success. Tens of millions have been gripped by close encounters of boots and scrums. They would have been bored stiff by the kind of rugby held up as an ideal in most of the Southern Hemisphere: 54-32 wins with ten tries and the "best" team winning. You will not win soccer fans over with such stuff - they have, after all, already rejected it in the forms of Rugby League, basketball, 7-a-side rugby etc., but what has succeeded temporarily is encounters as tense, dramatic and partisan as their own game only with more courage and more muscle.

One night last year when there was no sport on at all, Radio 5 held a debate on the state of sport. I was one of the studio guests. We disagreed on a range of issues - until I announced, with a Wildean sense of paradox, that sport should never be classified as "entertainment" because entertainment is boring.

Everybody nodded vigorously and what I think was in their minds was the popcorn world of American sport. What I meant was that English sports fans wanted a good deal more than could ever be included under the heading of the "E" word.

I have been trekking along to watch Burnley Football Club for well over half a century now: I have been enthralled, terrified, frustrated, satisfied, exasperated, depressed, relieved, even remunerated . . . the past participles could go on for a long time. Once, at Wrexham in 1991 when we were four goals to the good after 20 minutes, I suppose I was entertained, but it wasn't important. The experience has made me part of a story and a community, not a mere audience.

So it has been with the England rugby team and its virtues of courage, determination and strength. It is the Agincourt model: the opponents seem virtually invincible. In Shakespeare's version they bang on about their wonderful armour and horses and horsemanship and then (real life, rather than Shakespeare) they are daft enough to charge down a narrowing muddy valley and are slaughtered by humble bowmen who have neither armour nor horses. Something similar happened to the Armada, the Grande Armee and the Luftwaffe.

In our own version we are never the prancing ponies, the fancy dans or the expensive performing monkeys - we are the rock on which the aforementioned must test their true metal. Antipodean sportsmen make perfect villains of the traditional kind for the English. And we can live with it if they pass the test; the supreme demonstration of this was in 1986 when England football fans and writers saluted Diego Maradona's genius, despite his cheating and only four years after the two countries had fought a bitter war.

It seems as if New Zealand cannot live with itself so easily to judge by the lack of sportsmanship in many of the responses to defeat. Most sports shops in the country still advertise "New Zealand - World Rugby Champions": a kind of eternal denial. It is the nationalist psychosis in a sporting milieu; the world championship is like the sort of lost province without which we cannot live with ourselves, collectively or individually. It is New Zealand's Kosovo or Malvinas; thus the stories emanating out of the country of increased wife-battering and inconsolable children crying themselves to sleep. Just as Giovanni Gentile argued that Italy could not be itself until it was an overdog so New Zealand rugby culture seems unable to accept losing in the way that the rest of us accept it, nor to accept that other cultures are different. Which makes those black shirts look distinctly appropriate.

I used to admire New Zealand rugby the black shirts, the haka and so on. They gave Rugby Union a dimension lacking in cricket and football. I still have on my wall a poster which combines the images of the All Blacks and Lord of the Rings: the computer enhanced picture is of thousands of All Blacks doing the haka in Milford Sound and I acquired it in a pub in Westport, South Island, after a convivial evening.

But I am now beginning to regard the whole cult of the black jersey and the haka as both sinister and embarrassing. It is not a good idea to build the concept of invincibility into your self image in modern sport: you win some, you lose some. And Rugby Union has done a great deal of modernising since New Zealand did win a world championship in 1987. In 2011 New Zealand will host the RWC. It had better be good because those overlapping categories of sportswriter and ex-player will be commenting on the event a great deal less sympathetically than they would have done at one time.

Underlying all this is a colonial psychosis about athleticism, masculinity and the "mother country". It first showed itself in Anglo-Australian cricket matches in the 1870s and the 1880s, but the events surrounding the London Olympics in 1908 seem the clearest guide to what has just happened in rugby. The United States team came second to Great Britain in the medals table, but to say they were not happy about this would be an understatement. Their competitors and press constantly accused all other competitors and judges of cheating and they went so far as to produce their own medals table which excluded the less "manly" events which the British had won, such as archery. G. K.Chesterton commented:

The American cannot shake hands after the fight. He feels towards his conqueror as a man towards the invader who has robbed him of his God.
Lincoln Allison is Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. He is the author of Amateurism in Sport: An Analysis and a Defence (Frank Cass, 2001).

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Good on yer, Lincoln
Here is some support for you from Brisbane

What's the difference between an arsonist and the All Blacks? An
arsonist wouldn't waste five matches.
What's the difference between the All Blacks and a tea bag?
A tea bag stays longer in the cup.

Huntly and Palmer's are the new All Blacks' sponsor - because they
crumble in quarters.

What do you call 15 blokes sitting watching the World Cup semifinal? The All Blacks.

What about the All Black bra? All support but no cup.

Why do the All Blacks always have two to a hotel room when they're on tour?
So one can perform the Heimlich Manoeuvre when the other one chokes.

Posted by: John A P Williams at October 24, 2007 09:40 PM
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