Why was it good that New Zealand won the Rugby World Cup?

Despite having dual nationality (New Zealand/Australia), there are no divided loyalties when it comes to the rugby matches. I have remained steadfast Kiwi supporter since my arrival as an economic refugee in Australia in 1972.

So, since the weekend I have been thinking, “Why am I pleased that New Zealand won the World Cup?”

The answer, which will probably be true for most Kiwi males, is that rugby is the dominating and important influence on your childhood and teenage years. So I grew up in the isolated and insular world of New Zealand in the 1950s, where you couldn’t buy petrol over the weekends and there wasn’t much to do on a Saturday  (except play rugby) and even less on the Sunday. So rugby was a highlight in a pretty drab and boring world.

A day of fun at Lyall Bay in Wellington in the 1940s
A day of fun at Lyall Bay in Wellington in the 1940s

I first started playing rugby when I joined the Onslow Rugby club in Wellington in 1952, aged 8.

Perhaps “playing” is something of an overstatement. That season, rugby was cancelled every weekend because the weather. So my first experience of rugby was attending practices at the club grounds at 5 o’clock on Wednesday nights.  And those are Wednesday nights in the hills behind Wellington in mid-winter.

I was chosen to play hooker, the guy in the middle of the front row. This decision shaped my rugby future. I was to be a forward. Although big for my age. I was also a very fast runner but that counted for nothing. Big guys were forwards, little guys were backs.

During these rugby practices, the coach endeavoured to teach a group of eight-year-olds how a form a scrum.  On reflection, it is interesting that the first skill that I was taught was how to form a scrum, not how to catch, kick or pass a rugby ball and certainly not how to run with it.

This emphasis on the rugby scrum meant that I spent most of my rugby practices with my head wedged between the coach’s knees as he endeavoured (rather unsuccessfully as I remember) to assemble the other seven players around me.

So my early introduction to rugby was that it would be uncomfortable, boring and that it would have nothing to do with a rugby ball.

This proved to be excellent training for the greater part of my rugby playing career in New Zealand as  the scrum was a significant proportion of any rugby match in those days.  As a forward, I was not expected to touch the ball during the match other than when it was thrown into the line outs or put into the scrums.  I was certainly not expected to catch it and run with it which was fortunate because in my entire time playing in New Zealand, the situation hardly ever arose.

There was one particular skill that forwards were meant to have: they were meant to be able to dribble. That is dribble in the way that soccer player dribbles a soccer ball which entails keeping the ball under control the time. Anyone who has tried to do this was a rugby ball will realise how incredibly difficult this. I spent hours practising this skill and never once in close to 25 years of playing rugby did I ever use it on the field. If the ball was on the ground, you kicked it as hard as you could and then ran after it, as fast as you could. None of this dribbley stuff.

I have searched the web and there is only one picture available of someone dribbling the ball in rugby.

Barry-dribbling-ball

There are billions of pictures of almost everything on the Internet but there is only one picture available of someone dribbling the ball in rugby.

But the dribbling purist would tell you that Brian Murphy appears to be employing the time-honoured technique of “kick it as hard as you can and run”  not dribbling in the classical sense.

The other significant part of the game was the lineout. In those days, lineouts were a very different proposition from what they are today.

lineout

This is a very old photograph, but the situation had not changed much when I was playing rugby in the 1950s. Lineouts were normally the scene of slightly organised mayhem during which all manner of skulduggery took place.

But generally, they were messy and inconclusive, normally ending in a scrum for any one of the huge number of infringements. The line outs were complicated by the fact that the ball was thrown by the winger, normally  one of the smallest players in the team.

In the junior grades, the ball would be approximately one third the size of the player and normally wet and slippery to boot. The ball was thrown in by holding it between your legs and endeavouring to heave it above the heads of your teammates in the lineout. The margin for error or huge and almost invariably wound up with a scrum.

The ball is still disproportionately large. But this young bloke knows how to carry it and how to swerve at the same time
The ball is still disproportionately large. But this young bloke knows how to carry it and how to swerve at the same time

In those days, the game was  interrupted far more frequently for infringements, normally relating to the relative size of the player and the rugby ball and its, almost inevitably, slippery, condition.

This situation was complicated by the  rules regarding a knock-on which included any sort of fumble of the football even if the player maintained control of it. This is not the case today as the ball actually has to hit the ground and can be juggled as much as player likes, as long as they don’t actually drop it.

However, in the 1950s when the grounds are almost invariably very wet and muddy quagmires, the highly absorbent leather rugby balls were extremely slippery, heavy and difficult to handle. Young players had considerable difficulty handling the ball and most back-line movements inevitably wound up with a knock-on and a scrum.

This meant that the forwards would spend a significant proportion of the game in scrums and rucks:  extremely hard work and not particularly exciting. Large parts of the game are often spent walking from one scrum to another. Actually running somewhere, let alone getting the ball, was quite rare.

Mud

This is typical of the conditions in which rugby is played in well into the 1960s. Imagine being a small nine-year-old endeavouring to kick a ball through this swamp.

A rugby match was a dour uncompromising affair in the course of which forwards would become completely covered in mud and many of the backs, who might not touch the ball all day, would often remain completely clean.  This meant a sharp social divide in the team. Real men played in the forward pack, the rest were a group of slightly suspect sexuality.

And yet, I’m still a devoted All Blacks and rugby fan. My early experiences of playing rugby were pretty unexciting and I don’t remember many great highlights.

Mud 3

Not only did we frequently play in these conditions, we turned up to watch other people playing in them as well, nearly freezing our extremities off on the terraces at Eden Park.

With only two covered stands, it was standing room only at Eden Park for many years
With only two covered stands, it was standing room only at Eden Park for many years

There is an old dictum in psychology that repeated behaviour is behaviour that is being rewarded. But looking back, I have difficulty remembering the rewards.  Yet, I still watch every All Black match regardless of where it is played in the world.  In fairness, I no longer play nor do I turn up to watch games. I watch them on television.

In the recent RWC match against France, which was a comprehensive New Zealand victory to say the least, the All Blacks demonstrated their mastery of a modern game that is a far cry from what I grew up with. For someone who played the old game in the 1950s, the modern All Blacks are wonderful to watch. The contrast between the two eras begins with the way that the teams perform the haka.

two hakas

In the 1950s, when test matches were often won  3–0, the highlight of the year was the Maoris/Barbarian game where the two teams would often score close to 100 points between them. It was spectacular rugby, played at full speed, often with a tolerant referee and I always thought that it was the way that rugby should be played.

The current All Blacks have taken the style of playing to an art form and for an old rugby player it is a glorious thing to watch.

And this is why I still watch the rugby. Firstly, it is often a glorious spectacle and we win pretty often which always beats the alternative.

But secondly and more importantly, it reinforces my belief that things do get better, that there are people, in the case of rugby, the people who have changed the rules of the game over time, who can make changes that can bring about spectacular improvements in the life of the community.

And so, watching the All Blacks, with a perspective that encompasses over 60 years of playing, coaching and watching rugby, is a source of perpetual optimism.  It gives me a sense that things can be changed for the better and in a modern world this is a small but special ray of hope





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