Friday, July 19

The Perils of Not Following Rugby in New Zild

The Australian figure who has attracted the second largest number of biographies is cricketer Sir Donald Bradman (1908-2001). But the number one guy had a head start, having died before The Don saw the light of day. This was of course (!) the bushranger Ned Kelly (1855-80).

Bradman had a spectacular career as a high-scorer, especially before the War. So I was brought up hearing about how my uncle Jack (113 were he still alive), went to the Sydney Cricket Ground regularly, and saw Bradman score a century before lunch. I’m guessing that if you were to check the records of the SCG in the ‘20s and ‘30s, you’d find that Bradman hadn’t managed that every time. But it’s the legend that counts…

When I was growing up in Sydney in the ‘60s and ‘70s, however, I was very aware of all those winter ball sports. There was actual soccer, which was mainly played by teams of British and European immigrants. There was also a bit of Aussie Rules (aka aerial ping-pong), but the fans of that were largely in other States, especially Victoria. The popular NSW sports were Rugby League, and what’s called there Rugby Union: that is, Rugby in New Zealand. Union had a more posh image than League, no doubt from its origin in English public schools with their upper and middle-class players. But the codes went by suburb rather than class, so that my immediate suburb (Eastwood) was a Union stronghold, while the closest League club was Parramatta. There was of course overlap, so I’ve still a strong memory of a tree down the road from me in Eastwood, denuded of leaves in June, but covered with meticulously tied crêpe-paper ribbons, all in the blue and gold colours of the Parramatta Eels.

But remarkably, by the time I came to live in New Zealand in 1987, I hadn’t ever watched – right through – any match in Rugby Union, Rugby League, Aussie Rules, or soccer. At least being in New Zealand didn’t require much adjustment. If you were familiar with cricket, you had to realise that the most significant of the Chappell brothers was not either of the two distinguished older ones, Ian or Greg, but the scapegrace youngest, Trevor, the perpetrator of the scandalous Under-Arm Incident. But in winter ball sports, the dominant code was certainly what I’d known as Rugby Union. That made things very straightforward.

Except if the All Blacks played the Wallabies, and that was rather often. When such a match came up in conversation, I was asked which team I supported – or did I feel conflicted, caught between opposing loyalties? What was really being sought, of course, was a confirmation of my growing dedication to New Zealand over Australia. I was meant to follow the ABs. So I’d generally avoid the question, because answering it honestly would mean confessing that I hadn’t watched the match and couldn’t care less who’d won. And would admitting that mean that I’d turn into a sort of reverse 501? Whenever I visited Sydney, and then fetched up again at Auckland airport, would the Immigration official grill me about rugby, and arrange for me to be deported if I gave the wrong answer???

I did however bite the bullet when it came to the final of the Rugby World Cup in 2011, played on the Sunday of Labour Weekend in October. On the Monday, I was due to have High Tea at the Langham with friends (as one does), and I knew I couldn’t avoid conversation about the big event. I also realised that the All Blacks’ opponents were even worse than Trevor Chappell: the evil and dreaded French. So I turned on the TV and watched the match, the famous All Blacks victory.

‘Watched’ being the operative word. I kept the sound down, figuring I wouldn’t understand it. This was a weird, surreal experience. But the next day I passed Rugby Conversation 101 for the first time. I hadn’t really had the full rugby immersion. But it’s the legend that counts.

Rugby crossed my field of vision again during winter 2022, when the ABs had fallen from their dizzy heights, and developed a worrying habit of losing. I noticed all this because crossing my field of vision as well was that lovely Dr Bloomfield, and on the cusp of his departure from his Health head honcho role, he was asked whether he might become the new All Blacks coach? Alas, no. Indeed, he’d been shouting advice to them from the stands the previous weekend, and they hadn’t taken it.

I always had taken it, naturally, and had already paid personal tribute to the good Doctor the year before. Rugby got mixed up in that, too.

For their last ever ‘Wordsworth’ literary competition, the ‘Listener’ asked entrants to write a limerick on the Covid-19 1pm stand-ups. I couldn’t resist, and submitted this:

What the ministers wear at 1 will suffice.
But the Doc’s suits and ties are so classy and nice.
All the gals want to pash:
It’s fifty shades of Ash –
Be careful: they’ll tear off their masks in a trice!

This effort won, upon which the magazine terminated the competition.
There was a prize, too. A biography of Steve Hansen.