Thursday, 20 March 2014

the loss of my religion- the end of this blog

The loss  of faith, the withering away of religion is a fascinating experience when it occurs not as  a crisis or existential event but rather, as I  percieve it, more normally, as a slowly increasing withering away due to a mutitude of factors.
 This has occurred for me with rugby, espcially super rugby and so I am winding up this blog.
 There are to be no more posts- but i will probably write an article- as is the way with such things.
 Thanks to all who read it; it has been a very interesting exercise and when I began I didn't think it would end with such a statment or experience of rugby agnosticism.
 As to how and why I stopped being a fan,  it is obvious over the course of this blog that  I gained an increasing disenchantment the more I thought seriously about what I saw and what I experienced.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Why Todd Blackadder must go - performance, identity and other observations from super rugby

I ‘m currently reading the 2013 Wisden, which is the 150th volume of this most quintessential collection of cricket writing, scores, analysis and commentary.
 I was introduced to the glories of the yellow-jacket compendium by my father when I was a teenager and ever since have regularly dipped into them over the following 30 years. What always interests me is the way cricket writing extends the conversation into all aspects of life. Cricket writing, like the writing on baseball in America, manages to extend its discussion into a wider discussion of society, character, history, culture and identity. Football also manages to extend itself from the pitch into the wider society- most often to discuss class, tribalism and increasingly, geo-capitalism. Rugby writing however, is too often mired in game reports and the type of analysis that has dominates talkback radio. Is this due to the game itself, the player and the fans- or has, most often in New Zealand, the type of writing and analysis excluded those who may seek more? As I stated last year when I started this blog, I wanted to take the writing and thinking about rugby in different types of discussion.
 I am pleased to see the types of discussion now occurring the New Zealand herald rugby columns, and there are occasional glimpses of home on the rugby heaven, the roar and Espn sites. But more could be done, and done better…
 Therefore in this blog I will continue to try to think and write on more than just the game on the field.

 So what has occurred in Super Rugby recently.
 The most interesting thing is the way we are suddenly confronted with the possibility of a 17-team Super Rugby season, now to involve another South African team and one from Argentina. There has been understandable reaction against such an expansion often with calls to support Pacific Island rugby by including a team representing that region. But is the issue actually something bigger that hasn’t really been engaged with: the expansion is because Super Rugby actually isn’t working- and can’t work because it involves 3 conferences and 3 countries.

There is a central tension emerging in super rugby: the fans like the local derbies but the players don’t, especially the New Zealand teams, because of their physical intensity. The games against Australian and South African teams generally lack interest and meaning except for what impact they have on the points table. Super Rugby is faced with a crisis- what is the pay-off between capitalism and meaning? What we don’t want to see is the equivalent of that sorry spectacle of cricket matches played primarily for a television audience in front of half-empty or emptier stadiums. Yet super rugby is increasingly heading that way, especially outside of South Africa. In New Zealand and Australia the local derbies do bring out the fans, for these matches do still create and sustain meaning. But once Australian and South African teams come to New Zealand the stadiums start to empty and the game as televised contest takes precedence. To try and halt this we see a desperate push for pre-match and half-time entertainment in which live rugby at the ground becomes part of a wider entertainment package and spectacle.

Is the issue therefore one of Super Rugby which has expanded itself to the point of dilution? What makes sports meaningful is the contest involved and what it means to the supporters and players, and the quality of the players on view.
Super Rugby may have quality players, but most of the games are increasingly meaningless to most supporters. The joy of a local derby is that it is meaningful on a tribal, contextual and visceral level. In short, it is a type of war of regional identity increasingly played by mercenaries.  But the fans too are increasingly mercenary. Consider the way Taranaki  has relocated its Super Rugby identity into the Chiefs, not only because the Chiefs are successful in a way the Hurricanes can never hope to achieve, but also because of the financial windfalls they believe, as a region, are associated with such a shift in identity. To be able to cheer against your old team in the name of financial windfalls, as Taranaki supporters are now urged to do, exposes the financial basis of Super Rugby in a very stark way. In a similar way we see players stating loyalty to their provincial union in the ITM cup but deciding to play against their super rugby franchise by signing for a team outside that which their province feeds into. 

Some might say this is professionalism, but is it is a very strange type of professionalism that Super Rugby has created in New Zealand.  The problem with Super Rugby here is that it is not city-based, rather attempting to carry over a notion of representing a region that supplants traditional regional and city identities. The franchises  attempt to claim they represent a collection of regions and occasionally take games to their provincial outposts. Yet most of the games are played in a central location that is meant to somehow represent not only the collective regions but also the players and fans. But the players can and do come from all over the country for the Super Rugby season and then many return to other regions, often outside of their super rugby region, to live the rest of the year and play in the ITM Cup. 

This is perhaps seen most clearly in the perpetual problem of the Hurricanes who attempt to cover and represent locations that traditionally opposed each other. Likewise it could be argued that the Highlanders were most successful when they were a Dunedin team composed primarily of local players and those who came to Dunedin to study and play rugby. They were then the Dunedin team in its truest sense. The Blues as a team and as a franchise suffer an on-going crisis of identity and meaning. They are the face of a New Zealand rugby professionalism whereby the game itself seems increasingly secondary to the notion and identity of playing professional rugby.

As for the Crusaders and the Chiefs, they expose the crucial difference played by coaching and management in the modern game.  The players are, in professional team sport, mostly only as good as the coaches and management both get them and allow them to be.  Coaches choose teams and manage them and on the field the true results of that coaching and management come into stark relief. This was very clear in the Crusaders- Chiefs game. Yes the difference was evident on the field, but this represented the differences made by the coaching and management staff. What players were chosen and who they chose and were instructed to play- and to what degree could they play was starkly evident.
 It was not, in the end about the kicking, it was about the coaching and the players chosen and the type of team culture that develops within the abilities and limitations of the players. Most of the Chiefs team over the past 2 years would, as individuals, never have made a list of the top players- nor have played for the All Blacks. But as a unit expressing the coaching philosophy and team management they are superb as a professional team. The Crusaders on the other had expose a central limitation in the coaching and management of the franchise.
Already the signs are there that the Crusaders  need a new coach  and management team.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Recovering my religion? why sports provides meaning

Readers may remember I ended the last season on a somewhat despondent note.
 I had started this  blog as a way to chart my fandom of rugby over the 2013 season. What would it mean, I wondered, to think seriously about rugby and how it operates for fans over a season that began in  a southern hemisphere summer in  February and ended, for me,  sitting in a hotel lobby in Baltimore as a winter storm front gathered and the temperature plummeted below zero, attempting to follow the All Blacks' game against Ireland on my smart phone.  There was no coverage of this game in America and no Irish bar in Baltimore was showing rugby.

I was there for a conference of scholars of religion from America and around the globe. I was struck, as I always am in America, by how sports is so much more part of the fabric of society than it is in New Zealand. American Football especially, but also baseball were often topics of conversation. Serious, high-powered scholars saw no discrepancy between an avid interest in sports, visceral partisanship in support of a team and the ability to undertake high level intellectual work. Similarly, colleagues from further afield would talk soccer- and  the Australians and English would talk cricket - in ways that made New Zealand and New Zealanders seem one dimensional.

Today is Superbowl Sunday and that means finding a parking spot at university on this Monday morning was easier than usual. For all the Americans stay away from work and watch the game in a combination of exilic identity, sacred ritual and patriotism. Superbowl Sunday is a sacred day, a sacred ritual and  has become perhaps the prime example of civil religion.  In a similar fashion the recent Ashes series acted as civil religion drama for Australia whereby  the nation reaffirmed its sense of postcolonial identity and independence.  Central to this was the redemption of Mitchell Johnson  who demonstrated that what makes sports meaningful is the possibility of the unexpected and the improbable, the overcoming of fallibility by the most fallible. Sports at its best is where we can observe  the full range of what limited, fallible beings can do and not do. Triumph and failure, character and limitation, the constant dramas of expression that are offered to all of humanity are here expressed in a contests as much within and against oneself as against an opposition.

Similarly I find myself obsessively watching  grand slam tennis and the Tour de France. The doping scandals in the tour does not, on reflection diminish the central drama of human fallibility and character- rather it is central to it. For central to the tour is the test of character that raises the questions of what is possible, what is the limit of possibility and how does such decision get made?

This is what  we like about sports- those central contests that mimic in drama, within set space and time, that is in ritual,  the contest to exist that sits central to our life and our societies.

If central to everything is, ultimately, finitude- the knowledge of and opposition to our end and the desire to provide meaning of self and of self to others in the face of this, then sports is, in the end,the contest of self and the drama of a society against finitude.

 The 2013 season was one in which I was forced to seriously think about rugby, seriously, in a way I never had to before. Did I want this sport to dominate my life, to dominate my existence in this way?
 Could I actually become a tribal being?  What would doing so do to me- and to those who share my life?  What I discovered is that for all the apparent centrality of rugby to New Zealand, most of the time it occurs as a peripheral activity and drama for most- especially Super Rugby. The problem is Super Rugby, its format and length of season, its lack of drama and increasingly,  lack of meaning.
For  there are now two types of fans- fans of the game and fans of teams and fans of the game are increasingly alienated by the way the game is being being organised and marketed. For we all know, deep down, that Super Rugby is a failed competition that struggles to hold our interest across a year.

 So for 2014 I will be continuing this blog- and searching still to answer those questions  of meaning that rugby in New Zealand throws up for debate. There was a time  last year when I came close to becoming a rugby atheist and often was a rugby agnostic- both positions I never thought I would come to.  But,  having come though that dark night of the soul, I find myself looking forward, critically, expectantly, to this coming season, aware that perhaps that central drama of doubt is what makes rugby meaningful in the end.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Where to now for rugby in a world of the sporadic, virtual spectator.

Last week saw what has been universally described and rightly so as one of the greatest  rugby tests of all time. This was however a game that emphasized the singular problem facing  New Zealand rugby. In short  there are two forms of the game that really matter- that of schools and clubs and that of the All Blacks. Super Rugby and ITM are still, in some ways important, but  struggle to maintain meaning  for most New Zealanders across what is an incredibly long season.

We have a professional rugby season- that is a season where NZ rugby wants us to pay money to watch rugby- that stretches from late February into October. This is not so much a problem if we consider the audience primarily as a broadcasting one- that is, the supporters now pay money to Sky TV to watch rugby and sky TV in this way funds much of NZ rugby.
 In such a scenario games such as the recent All-Blacks -Springboks test are exactly what is needed as they provide a product that everyone wants to see repeated in a format whereby  the decision to pay to watch has already been made and all I have to do is sit on the couch and turn on the TV- and I don't now even have to watch it live. I don't have to get up in the middle of the night- I can watch a replay on sky the next morning or evening or i can record it on mysky.

Compare this  to going and watching an ITM game live.
 After watching the test match replay i then decided to not watch the live Wallabies-Pumas match. Instead I got ready with my daughters to go and watch Canterbury play Counties in the ITM cup as we have season tickets and this was one of the few afternoon games. We already knew that Counties would be fielding a second-string team as, having made the play-offs they were concentrating on the Shield defence coming up.
 So, needing to collect others and get a park we - as usual- leave about an hour before the game begins.
 We drive and then park, then walk for about 15 minutes or more depending on the crowd, line up and shuffle through the gates.
 I might buy a pottle of chips for $4. I won't buy an overpriced  tasteless beer or coffee or a minuscule exorbitantly expensive tiny bottle of wine.

We make our way to the seats where we wait while we are blasted by whatever noise the hosting radio station I never listen to attempts to do some pre-match 'entertainment'. At least at the ITM we don't get the cheer-leaders who, i am proud to say, my daughters always boo having been properly taught to identify both sexism in action and kitsch.

But we wait in a half-empty stadium, some come in late in front as the game starts forcing everyone to stand up and we miss bits of the game.  The game itself is dreadful in the first half. Canterbury has won 5 previous championships but today they are  horrible and sloppy and if i had paid specifically for this game i would have been very upset.  Of course the risk in  professional sport is you can find yourself paying money to watch a bad performance.

At halftime we need to buy some chips so we go and line up and find some eftpost machines don;t work so have to change ques.

The second half is  a much improved effort and is  40 minutes of enjoyment. Then  we stand up and make our way slowly out of the stands, and then out of the stadium and along the road back to car. once in the car we make our way out into the traffic and are on our way home.

From leaving home to returning it takes on average 3.5 hours.

 I have been doing this, often at night, often in winter, since February...

Increasingly in New Zealand professional rugby is watched in half-empty stadiums as supporters decide that the time involved, rugby played and  the surroundings/entertainment/facilities/provision of food and drink are not worth venturing  away from home to encounter.

 Nine months is a long time to maintain enthusiasm for a variable experience...

 If i have some spare time i might turn on the TV and watch a game, but i can eat and drink what i want, when i want, in the warmth and comfort of my home- and then during or after the match i can do what i want when i want.  In short the game gets fitted around the rest of my life and that of my family. If i compare most games to what i saw in the All Blacks-Springboks test then they are second-rate at best- and most often meaningless. And that is the problem- for increasing numbers of supporters most rugby- because there is too  much of it- has become increasingly meaningless.

I was talking with a fellow rugby-tragic who has season tickets next to me. He commented that he now never watches most rugby on TV as it has become a low-quality meaningless extended blur.  And yet also the  ritual of coming to the rugby, to live rugby, over 9 months is losing its allure.

 Speaking sociologically,  we are facing disenchantment. In turning the game professional we have turned it into just another form of entertainment we pay to watch. The exchange has increasingly become drained of sustainable meaning. 


Friday, 6 September 2013

What the Ranfurly Shield tells us

The two weeks in which Otago won and then lost the Ranfurly Shield are a reminder of where value lies in this age of professionalism. Sport, to become more than paying money to watch other people play for money, needs a drama associated with it that takes what is watched and turns it into something that is experienced. This is the success of the ITM cup- its regionalist, tribal drama and contest. This is not the invented identities of Super 15 wherein corporations claim to represent many regions that traditionally oppose and combat each other. This is sport at its most tribally theatrical. As  the french intellectual Roland Barthes wrote in 'what is sport', sport operates as a theatre in which the spectator is caught up as a participant. The shield matches succeed because the shield itself is a scarce commodity- it is set aside as sacred. People want to see it, to touch it, to be in its presence. Not for what is is- wood with metal, but for the mythos, the story, the claim it  represents. In short, for what it symbolizes- for both those who win it- and for those who lose it.
 The shield is where the local identity, the local value, the team as that which the spectator participates in is best realised.  This is why we have shield processions, it is the city, the province celebrating itself as having achieved something of worth.
If super rugby is the the mercenary game, then ITM cup, by holding onto the shield, by locating itself as properly provincial,  is now the lace where what can be called 'the real' of rugby is still located.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

the nomos & anomie of rugby- or why teams succeed & fail

The American sociologist Peter Berger in discussing what held society together and enabled it to function  talked of society as a dialectical phenomenon wherein it is at one and same time a human product and an external reality that acts back upon its creators.That is, we create society but also experience it as if it is more than a human creation that in turn we respond to. This process creates a meaningful order (nomos) upon experience.
Nomos = a social construction that keeps at bay the terror of social disorder and isolation.
 This meaningful order  (nomos) is what keeps the experience of disorder (anomie) at bay.
 This can be read in tandem with  the great sociologist Durkheim's work on functionalism.
 For Durkheim, society  is divided into parts and sub parts that fit together- each institution and social group has its function to perform for benefit of society.
 Society  is more than sum of  its parts- for if all parts function well and are connected then a new whole/society occurs.
 Durkheim also looked at what held society together at its functionalist core.
He looked at primitive society and identified as central the totem- an animal or plant that the group identified itself with- and identified with versus the totems/groups of others
 Durkheim saw the  totem as materialist principle of totem of god, but also  that the totem could be symbol of society without them even realising it
 So argues, Durkheim,  god and society are one: that a society is its god and its god is its society- worshipping your god is worshipping your society- and so society is the real object of religious veneration
  However we are unaware we worship society because society too abstract and complex to be materialized into a totem to be worshipped
 The symbols become the expression of the collective consciousness.
 This is the experience of what Berger terms the nomos.
 So what has all of this to do with rugby.
Over the weekend I saw two teams that displayed a  nomos, a functioning society, able to express the totemic value that holds them together. Both the Canterbury ITM  team and the All Blacks succeeded despite often going for periods without the ball, despite not really playing very well at times, despite having to integrate new players into an existing set-up.
 Both teams demonstrated that the nomos, the central totemic values, the team society are such that the collective can transcend the individuals. as such it is not so much about the players as how they play together.
In contrast Australian rugby continues to be a society experiencing anomie.
 Perhaps there is an internal competition of totems, the lack of a collective society that all are prepared or able to buy into.
 The Canterbury rugby team and the All Blacks are, in the end, their own totem and their own nomos. That is the secret of their success: they play to defend and venerate themselves. To lose is to risk losing their own self-identity and to risk anomie.

Friday, 9 August 2013

End of Super Rugby review: random thoughts

So I was wrong on my score prediction of the Crusaders-Chiefs semi-final but this was a game the Crusaders should have won- and back in the 2000s they would have won. But that was then and this team is not the team that was. Carter is himself not the consistent player he has been and a sabbatical is actually the last thing he may actually need. He is sluggish in decision making, becoming predictable and able to be out-smarted by opposing coaches. He does not have the same quality of players around him as in the ABs so lacks the support and cover.
 In short, the crusaders need 2 new half backs and a new second five, a new hooker and a  new blind side/no8  who is not a whitelock.

We also know the Crusaders backs are not the consistent force they need to be, but even more worrying was the way the Crusaders forwards were effectively beaten-up by the Chiefs.

 Liam Messum is not as good a player as he is made to look by the Chiefs and he is very one-dimensional. but he has been exceptionally coached and in Craig Clark the Chiefs had their version of Reuben Thorne; the gutsy, hardworking, do the basics exceptionally well and lead in a way all will follow player central to any successful team.

 In considering the Crusaders it is evident that this is a very solid, capable team but  it is starting to have a bit of the Nonu factor is that all the All-Blacks in it really seem to need the AB environment to play their best.

 This is a worrying trend in NZ Rugby whereby the ABs are now effectively playing a different style and type of game to that played and experienced at super rugby level.
The ABs in super rugby are having to constantly adjust to a different level and type of game, and this is not helped by the break in super rugby caused by the mid-year tour.

The most concerning thing about the season for the NZRFU must be the failure to attract big crowds. The discretionary dollar has many more options today and the number of games over a drawn out season, too many night games, cold weather, coupled with too many second-rate teams is turning people off.   The NZRFU needs to realise that 12,000-15000 is what they need to expect to almost every game- and if that is not enough to break even then they cannot blame the fans. Is super rugby too expensive for a small nation? Is it too expensive when too many games are played, too many night games, too many indifferent games.

When a reported 3000 can turn up to  the Christchurch club rugby final played in the afternoon, but only 15,000 turn up to a super rugby playoff  then  questions need to be raised as to how meaningful is super rugby to many people.
Remember the huge crowds for  Ranfurly shield matches back in the 1980s. We cannot expect to return to those crowds because such games were rare and meaningful. Scarcity is a value in sport- too much and it becomes mundane. 

 So now we turn to the ITM cup- and what do we see- far too many night games. Turning rugby into a nocturnal activity may please the broadcasters but it is killing the game. Too much rugby makes it it mundane- and makes it easy for the population to become indifferent.