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.

Friday, 26 July 2013

on finals footy- and booing

I didn't make it to the game between the Crusaders and the Reds because Finals footy has lost its edge.
 Is this disenchantment? A sense that the  super rugby series- if not the game- has lost its magic?
 When I recently did a public lecture on the religion of rugby a very pertinent question was asked in the lead-up to the Crusaders- Reds game: Why, if we are in the finals playoffs, is there so little celebration and excitement and interest.
This was evident in the failure to have a full stadium for that game, evident in the slow sales for tonight's semi-final between the Chiefs and the Crusaders.
 My reply was that the dictates of sky tv has caused the disenchantment. The season is too long and too many games are now played in the evening in the middle of winter.  A season stretching over so many months, a season broken by what was, to be honest, a totally meaningless tour by the French, a season that could never hope to compare with the intense passion and interest of the Lions tour of Australia.
 It is hard enough to get yourself and your kids- to 7.30 games in person, especially on a friday night; even more so when it is cold and dark and there is a threat of rain.
 It is hard to keep your family on side when they face months of 7.30 friday and saturday nights dominated by often poor- and to be honest- often quite meaningless rugby games.
I will watch tonight's game- but i will watch it on replay at 9.30 because the rest of my family- quite understandably- would prefer to watch Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries at 8.30.

 In the end the question I think increasing numbers of us ask- and these are not the temporary fans- but those of us who are in some ways sports and rugby tragics is- what is the point?

Super rugby has lost its lustre. It is too long, too large and needs to get its mojo, its magic, its enchantment, in fact its point, back. The attraction of the northern hemisphere game is the number of different competitions that a rugby season entails. Super rugby is  just one, overlong and ill-timed competition.  The glory that is the ITM cup occurs over a very short, intense period with a good number of afternoon games. This is real sporting tribalism, real sporting competition. A short sharp shock of footy. Similarly, this is why the Ranfurly Shield is so important- it actually has real meaning, has a real history.
 I was reminded of this when i sat up too late, too often, watching sessions of the Ashes. The Ashes is an event in the truest sense,  a rupture into and of daily life and existence when what occurs transcends the mere occurrence unfolding.

Super rugby has lost its sense of the event. That is why the booing of Quade Copper was so indicative of what has gone wrong.  In our household he is known as the aussie fossa- given his  resemblance to the civet-like predator of Madagascar. We don't like him because of the type of person he seems to be. But we can admire his skill as rugby player.
 The booing of Cooper signals a shift from a crowd who are there to watch the skill and drama of the game to a crowd looking to express a herd-like mentality. A crowd ultimately bored by rugby will boo at every opportunity, just like they will indulge in the mass stupidity of constant mexican waves.

I am not bored by rugby- but i am disenchanted by what has become an overlong, seemingly meaningless series.
For the record, the Crusaders will win by 10 or more but will loose to the Bulls in the final. But do I really care? Not really. And i suspect- and hear- increasing numbers of fellow rugby tragics agree. The NZRFU would be wise to take note.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Learning from the Lions

The magnificent series victory by the Lions over the Wallabies demonstrates two simple facts.
 One is that the secret to coaching is as much knowing who not to select as who to select- and being able to follow that through. The second is that team culture is central.
 The team must be able to transcend the internal differences that exist and that will always exist. A coach that has created a good team culture will be able to not select certain players- and survive; a coach that has failed to create the team culture will always fail.

 An important element that Gatland and his team were able to bring to fulfilment was the mythology of the Lions.  In many ways this tour was the make or break time for this mythology. In a world of professional sport could a concept like the Lions exist and succeed  when players appear to have so many transitional and divided loyalties? Was the Idea, the Concept, the Myth, the belief in 'the Lions' strong enough, big enough, meaningful enough to be able to triumph?

 The secret of the Lions is that  is a scarce experience, it exists separate from anything else in world rugby. The Lions exist in many ways as a sacred event, in the sense of sacred meaning 'set aside'. If the Lions became an annual event, or even occurred every 2 years the experience would be in danger of being profaned. Because the chance to wear the red jersey, to play against the red jersey, is a scarce event it remains perhaps the greatest mystique and value in world rugby.

 The All Blacks have tried extremely hard to create and perpetuate a similar mystique with the black jersey- but theirs is actually based on the success of the team, not on the more transcendent mythologies that the Lions embody. If the All Blacks lost more regularly then the mystique would fade. The only way to restore it would be to play less often.

The biggest problem facing Australian rugby is not the rebuilding of team culture, for McKenzie has demonstrated that he is capable of doing that. it will be that of not selecting players. Already the Melbourne Rebels have shown the way forward.
 The irony is that in the past, when Deans was coaching the Crusaders talented but troublesome players like O'Conner would have been shipped south to be sorted out.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

the All Black problem

On Saturday night two games of rugby were played. The first was bungled boring affair only redeemed by two acts of counter-attacking brilliance. The set-pieces were mangled,there was little inspiration or intelligence on set-piece attack as much of game was actually two games between the French playing rugby and the All Blacks playing their highly effective league-rugby hybrid game. New Zealand over the Henry years moved All Black rugby to a new level, but in playing a type of 'total football' whereby players all have the same skill set something has been lost. The game the All Blacks play is now closer to league than it is to rugby as it was played. Part of this is that The defensive lines are such that it becomes a crash and bash game. It is also that we have discovered that negative rugby can win, especially with a host of crash and bash players. This is why sonny bill was  revelation, he brought  subtlety new to current All Black rugby. Likewise the old fashioned skills of Beaudon Barrett and Ben Smith have brought something new to the team. But they rarely get to express them except on counter-attack. Nonu may be brutally effective, but he has killed positive back play. Slow half backs don't help, especially when the first five becomes a shoveller through necessity as opposing back lines are up so fast. We have too many forwards loitering all over the field looking to do our equivalent of the league mid-field hit-up. It is apparent too that this style only really succeeds when you have loosies on the top of their game. We sorely miss McCaw and Kaino, as well as what Thorne brought in the rucks and mauls.
 The only acts of intelligence and subtlety are those rare moments of counter-attack that seem to be the only way we can score tries. The fact that the crowd in New Plymouth booed the French drop goal should tell us all we need to know. To boo a central skill  exposes the mentality created by  All Black rugby and the crowds who turn out for these experiences in corporate nationalism.

The difference with the rugby played between the Lions and Australia couldn't have been more striking. This was rugby in all its drama, passion, flair and structured brutality.  It was how rugby should be played, with a clear distinction between backs and forwards, the desire to use set-pieces as forms of attack and defence, the use of the rolling maul. It was a game, a contest, a challenge to our senses, and not  what increasingly seems to be hybrid game of  the current All Blacks. The All Blacks probably would have beaten both teams- but it would have been a rugby tragedy if they had done so.
 Is it the coaching? perhaps. Is it the types of players who now reach All Black status? perhaps. Is it a reflection of the way that NZ rugby crowds can be divided into those that want rugby and those that want the 'winning entertainment experience?' most certainly. All Black rugby attracts a different type of crowd to that who attend Super Rugby and the ITM cup. It is not about the rugby played, it is about 'The ABs winning'- and that is the central issue.

Thankfully we can forget the current All Black rugby experience for a couple of months and wtach the Lions play rugby- and watch the rugby of the Super 15.
The All Blacks can return to playing rugby- and we may lose test in the process- but I would rather have the drama and passion of a proper ruby game- even if we lost than the boring hybrid we are currently inlficted with.
We need forwards to be forwards and backs to be backs. We need to return to the dark arts of the scrum and to reinstate the rolling maul. We need half-backs who not only can pass long and fast, but also take control of  a game.  We need a midfield that has subtlety. Conrad Smith has been  a standout in the past but has now gone one season too long. He is very good- but never has been in the class of O'Driscoll.  Nonu exemplifies the type of player and rugby we need to move away from. We need loosies who attend to core business. Yet the players are there in New Zealand rugby:
Starting 15:

Full Back:Beaudon Barrett
Wings: Julian Savea, Israel Dagg
Centre: Ben Smith
2nd 5: Dan Carter
1st 5: Aaron Cruden
Halfback: TJ Perenara
No 8: Kieran Read
Openside: Richie McCaw
Blindside: Stephen Luatua
Locks: Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick
Props: Owen Franks, Ben Franks
Hooker: James Parsons

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Does Christchurch need a covered stadium?

Last Friday I went to the Crusaders-Waratahs game at AMI. My season seats are three rows back on the ten yard line behind the opposition bench. Three rows is high enough to see but close enough to hear- and almost feel- all the action. The stadium is small, compressed and  therefore engaged even when, as is almost always the case, it is never completely full. For the Crusaders- Blues match earlier the stadium was almost full and the atmosphere was similar to a test match- or Carisbrook in its heyday in the early 1990s.
 Night games in winter are always going to be an issue in New Zealand- and especially so in the South Island. Yet the compressed nature of AMI stadium, the steep stands on each side and the stadium's positioning out of the direct  blast of the easterly make it a much more pleasant and engaging place to watch rugby than the old Lancaster Park/Jade/AMI home of crusaders rugby. Even when it rains, the overhang of the roof means I have yet to be soaked watching a game at the new stadium. Likewise, because there is no blasting wind nor whistling breeze, coupled with compressed seating, the cold is never really an issue. In fact I would argue that is it is the perfect size and shape to watch rugby in New Zealand. If we are honest, Canterbury and the Crusaders are never now likely to attract more than 17000 fans to any game in winter, especially night games. Yet even more so, Super rugby in New Zealand, especially in a city of the size of Christchurch, is unlikely to attract test-match size crowds. we just don't have the population and with Sky, increasing numbers are now what can be termed virtual fans watching at home or in pubs.

The next night I was down in Dunedin and watched the Highlanders defeat the Blues in the Forsyth Barr Stadium.  I took the whole family because the attraction of a covered stadium made them feel that they could cope with the cold of a night game. Yet, ironically, because of the position of the take a kids seats near an open wind-tunnel exit, I was colder in a covered stadium than I have been in the open stadium in Christchurch. That said, if the seats could be gained closer to the middle of the field then we would have been much warmer. But we need to remember that a covered roof may keep off rain but not necessarily keep out cold winds.

The stadium itself is very impressive- and vast. It is also somewhat impersonal. There was a good crowd, but the stadium still felt- and sounded- half empty. There also seemed an expectation that the crowds needed constant entertainment to keep them engaged in such a vast space. So we had various types of performances and performers both prior to and during the match along the sidelines. This was not so much rugby as an entertainment spectacle.

 And then there was the Zoo. For some reason the take a kids seats are, on the town end, very close to the Zoo and all its antics. The positioning of students away from where the game is often played means they will of course resort to making their own entertainment when play is at the other end of the field. What is interesting is how they have costumed encourager's- in chicken suits, in a skeleton suit- and some young man who should have been wearing much more under a lycra body suit. I couldn't help thinking that it is the positioning of the Zoo at one end of the field that necessitates much of its behaviour. Because it is difficult to see play at the other end in a stadium of this size and  the screens are not really large enough. One of the joys of the bank at Carisbrook was that you were close to the play  on the field and could see well. The Zoo is not for those who want to watch rugby- and that is its problem.
 All that said,  I would go south to watch a test match there- if I could get seats closer to the centre of the field. For when it is full it would become a much different place. But the  acoustics when it is half full are woeful and so a curious disengagement occurred- even though the Highlanders won.

Of course the debate in Christchurch is whether we need a covered stadium. On my experiences I would say definitely not. It will be an expensive half-full ( at best) experience for all games  except the odd test match. What we need to do is actually only host small-capacity test matches at AMI and more so keep AMI long-term for rugby. We don't need a new stadium- and we don't need, can't fill and can't afford, a covered stadium. With only 1 million people in the South Island we can only support- at best- one expensive covered stadium and now that Dunedin has got it we need to support that and not try to compete.

 In today's world of competing options for that disposable entertainment dollar, a covered stadium isn't going to draw in bigger crowds- nor is it going to necessarily result in a better experience of rugby to watch- or even  a better  type of rugby played. It is a winter game that unfortunately has become- at super level,  primarily a night game too. The issue is actually  the prevalence of night games and that is not going to change because of broadcasting demands. Rugby is still a central sport to New Zealand culture- but for many it is  now something to be watched in TV and not in person. A covered stadium isn't going to change that.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Does the All Black team naming matter anymore?

Once upon a time the naming of an All Black team was an event of sacred ritual and intrigue. Conducted after a trial match it would be communicated, usually via radio, from an after-match function. The names swam in and out of audibility as the official gifted the sheet to read often mumbled and stumbled their way through the names  failing to keep the tones of surprise, indignation or delight out of their voice depending on the name. All of this occurred against a constant background chatter,  the cheers of celebration, comments of disapproval, a clinking of beer glasses and the munching of pies and chips.

As soon as the names were completed then the assembled reporters would attempt to get the first question in - while the radio coverage often abruptly stopped. This meant you were left at home with a hastily scrawled list of names that you checked against your own selections and then the great dissection occurred- within families, between friends and colleagues as  to who should be in and who shouldn't, why some were included and others left out. There was always a bolter or two, especially when the great overseas tours occurred when bolters were often dirt-trackers deemed good enough to represent the country but not really good enough to ever start a test.

 Professional rugby changes this with the naming of extended training squads giving a very clear indication- barring injury- as to who will be included in the text squad. For it is no longer just a team but a wider squad and it is not about just those who may start a test but also those who will now be 'impact' players. More than this, as an employer, the NZRFU is very careful as to those it employs at this elite level.  For it is now no longer just  the granting of a black jersey and a place in New Zealand mythology, it is also a considerable monetary reward- and investment.

Secondly, the sheer number of All Blacks in a professional era  disenchants the brand. At least that is what I thought until I went looking at the statistics of how many All Blacks get named in a decade. On average from the 1960s, about 100 new All Blacks get named a decade.  So there really hasn't been an increase in the number of All Blacks named per decade for almost half a century. What has changed however is how many get to play test match rugby- and what that means.  Looking back over the statistics on the All Blacks web site you are struck by how few tests and how many matches most All Blacks played. The difference today is that being named as an All Black means being named as a test player. 

Secondly, being named as  a test player doesn't mean being named as a starting player- or a reserve who will come on because of injury. The shift to  a  bench squad who get a run as impact and non-injury replacement changes the notion of what a test player is. A test player may never - or rarely start a test, and may indeed spend most of their test career never playing a full half- let alone a full game. So being a  test match All Black has changed, coupled with the end to most non-test matches.

This is what makes the Lions tour so fascinating. Not only is it a series of tests, it also involves the games against non-test sides in which  the international side may be beaten by the local side - and the non-test players are doing all they can to prove they can step up to the Lions test team.

This is also why the naming of the All Black end of year touring team is more interesting than that for the series against South Africa, Australia and now Argentina. For in the tests on that tour a player in the equivalent of a dirt-tracker test - i.e versus Italy or Scotland- can put their hand up for the higher honours of a game against England or France.

 Conversely France, being so unpredictable raise problems for naming bolters in the series before the Southern hemisphere series. Often we have been able to name dirt-tackers and bolters and give them a go in the first series of internationals before the real test begin. But France don't allow us to do this without a real risk of defeat.

So this All Black team -whoever is named- doesn't contain the same excitement and possibilities that All Black teams did - or could.  

Yet also,  bigger issues arise. Perhaps we are playing too many tests and not enough matches?  Can we learn from the success, excitement and drama of a Lions tour and offer a  tri-nations team to tour the Northern hemisphere or an Australiasian team to tour South Africa and the North? What we need is an end to the predictabilty.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

test match rugby in a globalized world

One of the central topics for sociology is that of globalization and what this may mean for the nation state. Ulrich Beck talks of a shift from a first modernity centred on the nation state to a second modernity which is more global and exists over and against the nation state. In globalization- so social theorists such as Beck and David Held note - what is most important is both the local (where we live) and the global (where we are connected to and imagine and consume via media technology). The result is that the national becomes an identity and a location  that means increasingly less for more and more people on a day to day basis.

Benedict Anderson famously titled his study of nationalism as Imagined Communities noted how the nation state is primary a social and political imaginary that has to be actively maintained and confirmed as existing and important for all the peoples whose primary identities are local, cultural, ethnic, religious and the like. The nation is therefore a transcendent claim over and above the lived, everyday indentities and loyalties.

 Sport has operated as both the claim of the nation and that which seeks to undercut the universal claim. Most sport is local and in fact the national occurs as rare events. What is important is the local participating within national competitions.  The nation state competing against other nation states is always undercut by the question as to what degree does that team represent, in its competition and ethos, the various local identities. International sport is therefore a type of transcendent call to conflict and imagined community. The difficulty is always overcoming the more present local rivalries to support, in the national team, players and by default, regions, localities, identities and an ethos that one spends the rest of the year actively not supporting-and indeed  often opposing and dismissing as irrelevant.

When test match rugby was rare and when it occurred in a world of first modernity centred on the nation state it was easier to get support,  for playing for the test team and supporting the test test was to support the nation in conflict with others. But when we move into globalized/localized second modernity the test match becomes the attempt to reclaim and reinforce a national identity to populations increasingly existing in everyday existence and imagination both locally and globally-but decreasingly nationally. This is why World Cups become so important, because they actually exist as meaningful events:they are both truly global and not common.

The test matches I am most looking forward to are those of  the Wallabies-Lions series.This is the next best thing to a World Cup. Similarly, because they are not yet common, I am most interested in how the All Blacks play against Argentina. But the games against South Africa and Australia are increasingly mundane. In thinking back over the past decade, I have found myself far more interested in Super Rugby than most All Black test series and overall most enjoying the ITM Cup. Perhaps I am over nationalism and national identity. Yet also, so are all those players who choose to go and play offshore. So I find myself still an avid rugby fan but one increasingly self-distanced from the imagined community of the All Blacks.  The sociology and social theory of globalization and second modernity would suggest that I am not a singular exception.Therefore the challenge for the All Blacks- and test rugby more widely- is  going to be how they handle the challenge of second modernity.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Israel Dagg, Sean Maitland & SBW: what they tell us about the Crusaders

That Israel Dagg has been stood down by the Crusaders should come as no surprise.  When a team is playing badly the temptation is  usually to look to star players and expect them to provide the spark and change necessary. Dagg has never looked comfortable within the Crusaders; it appears the reality of the Crusaders set-up and systems do not match with his skills and possibilities.  So I wonder how Dagg with go at the Chiefs or the Blues because his type of play seems to fit better with not only how those teams play- but also with the coaching ethos and structure they appear to represent. How would Dan Carter have been if he had to start and play his early career under the current Crusaders structure and type of play? Would his particular genius  have been able to transcend the obvious limitations of the systems and players  he would be expected to play within and with. Sean Maitland is another example.  That he made the Lions is not due to favouritism by Warren Gatland, nor is it a sign of weakness at wing within the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish teams. Maitland was and is a much better player than the current Crusaders set-up would allow and that he was so easily let go exposes a central problem that is now being highlighted by the treatment of Dagg. Consider also the way SBW made an exponential jump as a player when he left the Crusaders and went to the Chiefs. The question is never about the quality of the players in themselves- which is something that the All Black coaches recognise- it is more often to do with the environment, systems and team cultures that excellent, gifted players find themselves expected to operate in. I have made comments about the expectations of fans that top players play well for their franchises- but the other side of this is the expectation that franchises raise when coaches and systems operate against the best interests of the players.
 Consider the  case of Robbie Fruean- is his failure to capitalise on his immense potential necessarily due to him  and his on-going health issues? Or, is it also a case that the type of  game he has had to play over the past few years, coupled with the limitations of those around him, has held back his development as a player.

So SBW leaves the Crusaders and becomes a world-beater. Maitland leaves the Crusaders and makes the Lions in his first season in Scotland. Should Dagg leave the Crusaders for the sake of his career- and take Robbie Fruean with him?

Is it the case that the Crusaders forward coaching and  ethos is first rate but the back play and ethos need a serious re-think- and the bringing in of non-Canterbury intellectual capital.

When things don't go well it is usually the case of the management first blaming the employees for not doing their job properly.  This is what has happened with Dagg. Yet those who relocate from a business not doing well often exceed what they were doing under the old management structures and systems. And that is the lesson for not only the Crusaders but also for the Highlanders. Punishment never gets the best of the best in the long run..., the best need to be faciliated, not limited.

Monday, 29 April 2013

The problem of long-term All Black contracts

What if the All Blacks are ruining rugby in New Zealand? A strange question I know but the more I watch Super Rugby and see the  on-going under performance of many contracted All Blacks the more I am convincing myself that long-term All Black contracts are  the bane of Super Rugby.
 It is a cliche that it harder to get out of the All Blacks than to get into the team  and this is even more so now that they are increasingly first and foremost a branding opportunity for the NZRFU. Yet  what eventuates is a situation whereby  many long-term contracted All Blacks appear to play with a focus on the international calendar to the detriment of their super rugby team.  Yet can one really blame them? They play in the expectation that they will most probably get picked for the All Black squad and continue to receive their All Black contract as the NZRFU has too much invested in the branding opportunities of a totem pole of signature players. So they play wary of injuries and the fabled
burn-out', they play looking first and foremost to peak for the internationals. Yet this means the fans who go each week to watch them play for their franchises get an under-performing 'product'; it means the team-mates of these players have play with deliberately self-limiting players.

The issue is not one that is going to go away when there is a dual tier professional rugby system whereby the All Blacks are on a contract system to keep them playing in the country and operating as the brand-focus of the NZRFU. As I have argued, we need a truly professional system that allows the free exchange of location of players. You could argue that the NZRFU is merely protecting its product investment by requiring All Blacks to stay and play within NZ- and the long-term contracts are a way to ensure that players do stay here. Yet perhaps we play too many internationals against the same teams. The tri-nations was dreadfully stale and while the addition of Argentina has brightened it considerably we get an overdose of relentless hyperbolic nationalism that is really just product marketing. These are not really teams chosen on who has been playing the best in the competition of super rugby, they are instead teams chosen in the main even before the super rugby season starts.
 Perhaps I am just over  the saturation of commodified nationalism; perhaps I am tired of seeing under performing 'international' players; perhaps I just want to see the best-performing players, week-in and week-out at super rugby level rewarded with the chance to play an international against the best performers from elsewhere. Perhaps I just want to see less but more meaningful international rugby matches.
 If the All Blacks really are ruining NZ rugby- a different thing from the brand of NZ rugby- then  perhaps we need to rethink what the All Blacks really mean - and represent.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

A proper All Black Trial- and rethinking super rugby

Like many of my generation I remember All Black Trials with a nostalgic fondness. Part of the appeal was the clear delineation of the names of the teams- the Probables were the shadow All Blacks and the Possibles were those who might, if they played well, force the changes and make the All Blacks- even if only for the mid-week dirt-trackers if going on an overseas tour.
 Pre-Trial there was always the interest of playing selector drafting your own Possibles and Probables and then, post-game quickly drafting your own All Black team and ticking off the names as they were, always, ponderously read-out by some inarticulate official temporarily stunned to be the attention of a media scrum.
 Of course there was much less rugby in those days and rugby was local, provincial and not the second-tier international of Super Rugby.
 Yet there is something wrong with professional rugby when players can  effectively go through the motions for their secondary employer- the provincial franchises- secure in the belief that their primary employer- the NZRFU will pick them for the ABs. What complicates matters is the way that super rugby is not really professional in being an open market. To play for the ABs you must play in NZ and so  our professional rugby teams are effectively a closed shop of players -and increasingly a closed and limited shop of talent. The NZRFU is really the grand patriotic collectivist corporation and the super franchises are the shop-fronts for the collectivist brand and product.
 Yet consider an alternative: what if , to make the ABs a player had to play for any Super 15 franchise or play in the Japanese league? Ideally of course it would be any player playing professionally anywhere in the world but let's take things one step at a time. The problems with super rugby franchises is that they tend to draw on local- and national players- but if we consider English football, American football, baseball, basketball then players are highly mobile and teams are composed of players from all over the world.
If super rugby  was truly opened up then we would get global players playing a global game. Yes we might lose top players to high-paying clubs but not necessarily. Who players may choose to play with- and under - would become more variable. Super teams composed of a variety of players from around the world would be a sign of true professionalism; what we have at the moment is really professional provincialism- and rugby is suffering.
 So imagine an AB trial whereby players from across super rugby franchises and those in Japan are the pool to choose from. NZ players, by playing outside NZ and in combination with players from elsewhere will develop their game. Ideally we could call upon those playing in Europe as well and then rugby would be truly professional- and the AB trial would be completely meaningful.
 The support for the 6 nations championship puts our tri/now 4-nations often to shame; and the northern hemisphere-southern hemisphere season split means that northern players could come and play south for internationals. The way George Smith is playing is testament that good players playing outside the nation-state are more than capable of still representing their nation.
 So bring back the AB Trial- but only if super-rugby and NZ-representative criteria are reformed- and truly professionalised.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

on the twisted economics of fandom

Part of being a fan is sticking with a team through all the ups and downs not only of a single season but over multiple seasons. Once the choice of team is made the logic of fandom tends to demand that this is a pact of loyalty. Yet this is not ever really a reciprocal loyalty. Fans are in fact pledging loyalty to a business, a corporation. This is a type of economic exchange in which the hard-core fans continue their identity, association and, let's be clear, purchase of a product that to all intent and purposes fails to deliver on the often extravagant promises. No only do we pay to attend, we then pay to have a limited, overpriced choice of food and beverages, we pay to be subjected to inane and amateur pre and mid-game 'entertainment', we pay for a decidedly limited 'programme' and all of those before we watch the game. So we do this because of the expectation that 'our' team will deliver- if not the winning of the championship, then at least the winning of the conference- or at poor last, the winning of the game. Even beneath this we hope to experience- even if in a lost game - those moments of transcendent excitement, agility, brilliance, courage and skill that will survive the often mundane play that occurs in most sporting encounters. In effect we  purchase  brief moments of transcendence, encountered in collective experiences of transgressive identity. This is tribal transcendence, in which the team represents, however briefly, the possibilities that we, the tribe believe somehow embody 'us'.
The owners however have a different outlook. I have been reading Dave Zirin's incisively brilliant and angry "Bad Sports. How the owners are ruining the games we love" (Scribner, 2010). Zirin is one of those rare sportswriters who takes the analysis into a wider engagement with politics, economics, society and culture. In short, this is how sports writing ought be be- but too often isn't. Zirin is a sports critic- or rather, a writer of sports criticism- in the same way others are critics of literature, or society, or culture. Zirin's concern is that the owners, in so blatantly and brutally treating sports as a business- and in demanding public money for stadiums- are expressing complete disdain for the fans.

 Fans are mugs and idealists all at once- we want to believe the best, the impossible- yet in doing so we are often taken for a ride by the business of the 'team'. We can choose not to turn up, not to watch- yet, by our own twisted logic- that the owners count upon- we feel disloyal if we do so. The constant changes in team uniforms are part of this. I refuse to buy a team jersey because in the end all I am doing is giving even more money to the business of the team. Yet I will continue to attend in the spirit of hope that, however briefly, this team, these players, will provide a moment of transcendence and excitement that I can, in all honestly, respond to in an utterly transgressive manner. Because fandom is , if we are honest, the experience of transgressive behaviour- in many forms, behaviour that, if encountered outside of the game, would seem even stranger than when we do it within the bounded confines of the game. It is a site for and sight of irrationality. And this is what professional sport counts on- the willingness to purchase participation within a bounded environment of transgressive irrationality.

Monday, 8 April 2013

the sorry saga of highlanders rugby- and question of crowds

After another bumbling effort, this time against a Blues team that sought to play integrated, coherent rugby, it has become apparent that the Highlanders are destined for a truly horrific season. Taine Randall, on Re-union,  identified the failures of the loose forwards as the central reason for their troubles. And it is true  in that only John Hardie was- and is- truly consistent and playing at a Super 15 level of that trio. Eliot Dixon with ball in hand has the look of a a young Murray Mexted on the charge, but he lacks all those other skills that made Mexted such a great player. Even more so, Dixon seems to lack the rugby brain that has allowed Mexted to to successfully succeed with IRANZ. Dixon is in that level of solid ITM Cup player who cannot make a sustained leap up a level. he lacks the basic awareness of what his position demands. This is increasingly common as too many players stall at ITM cup- or semi-pro level. The talent base in NZ is never as large as we may wish to believe it to be- and demographics is the central answer. There is a limit on the number of players capable of playing successfully at a top professional level. we see this also with the number of second-tier players who struggle with the Rebels and the Force. Or, those who disappear to Japan and even there have middling careers.  As for  Hoeta, he is a sad case of player picked for the All Blacks out of necessity and a small pool of possibilities. He never was All Black material- and definitely is not now. He is, to put it bluntly, a stupid player doing stupid things, mistaking idiocy for aggression and bad attitude for ability.
 Yet the problems are far greater.
Nonu's limitations as a player- and individual- are increasingly evident. He needs both a quality, directional first five and centre to be able to do what he does best- which is to play an instinctive, individual game. Against the Blues he played stupidly- and selfishly. He will probably head off-shore at the end of the season before his 'brand' is too tarnished. Also expect him to go to the easier league of Japan where he can dominate by sheer presence alone. In Europe he would be too easily shut down.
  Even more worryingly, Smith at half-back is looking increasingly like a one-season All Black. What was exciting about his game- the speed of pass- is looking more and more like the one-dimensional offering he has to make. Behind a pack under pressure and with indecisive backs outside him it is increasingly, and sadly evident, that he done not bring enough mental tightness nor rugby vision to  his game- in the end he is just a passing machine.
 Overall what the Highlanders demonstrate is that  NZ can really only provide  4 top-tier super rugby teams. Likewise Australia can - at a stretch- provide four, and South Africa four also. What is needed is an intermediate conference below Super Rugby - or, as was successfully done with the ITM cup, split the  Super 15 into a upper and lower division with promotion relegation to upper/lower at the end of the season.

The other issue for the Highlanders is the white elephant stadium. There is only a need for a single large rugby stadium in NZ- and Dunedin is not the place to have it.  Sky TV, large screen tvs,  and night games all mean Super rugby games fail to fill their stadiums. even the Crusaders ground struggles to fill to its 17,000 capacity. 17,000 should be the limit for any rugby ground outside the main one- which should be in Auckland given demographics. Christchurch's planned large stadium is only going to be an on-going burden on rate-payers and the rugby-going public. It- like most grounds- will struggle to be filled. what NZ rugby needs to do is have a look at South Africa and consider how the Stormers can get 48,000 to an afternoon game against the Crusaders- or how the Sharks and Bulls can fill their stadiums. Even the reds seem to be able to attract larger crowds. Yes these are larger cities than most NZ ones- but there are other, social and cultural factors at play. How do we get fans off the couch and into the stands- unless NZ rugby seriously considers this we are doomed to rugby payed increasingly for virtual fans in half-empty stadiums. It may not matter to Sky TV but it should be of concern to NZ rugby.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

The problem of Robbie Fruean and the joy of George Whitelock

One of the benefits of going to live rugby is the ability to watch a single player for a concentrated period of time. The difference between rugby as a mediated event or spectacle where every view and image is pre-chosen for you, with commentary continuously telling you what you have seen and often what often to think and the live event is staggering when we return to the live game after prolonged periods of what is, truly, 'virtual' rugby.
The last two games of live rugby I have attended, watching the Crusaders play, I have paid close attention to two players: Robbie Fruean and George Whitelock. Sitting on the 10 yard line, 3 rows back from the ground, I get a close-up view of the game that means I am close enough to  really see, hear- and almost- feel it. Such a position allows me to closely watch different players for a period to see exactly what they do, when and how- both on and off the ball.

Robbie Fruean is a player of immense potential- or more truly, was such a player. As Gregor Paul noted in the season preview edition of NZ Rugby world, he is one of 5 players who have to perform.
The fact about Fruean is that he can perform-in patches. This is not in patches in the season but, more worryingly, in patches in a game. When he does perform he is like a rhino on the charge: he has speed, strength and an excitement factor that is infectious. He is the favourite of kids and all those fans who like rugby to be a spectacle. But in both home games this season the off-patches in the game have been longer than the on-patches. Early in both games he looks very short of breath, often hidden away on the wing, hands in knees, looking like he is about to be sick. His health issues are well known and the courage he has shown to be able to return to top-level rugby deserves respect. Yet something is obviously wrong this season. More often  than not he is out of play, resting, hidden in fact. When the ball does come his way there is the short burst if necessary, but too often it is more a case of shovelling it on. Watching him off the ball he is a sick man and in that condition the rest of the team has to cover for him. The strength of the Crusaders is that they are, so far, able to cover for him on the field while he recovers. But his confidence is waning and sooner or later teams are going to figure out something is wrong with him and target where he is.

George Whitelock on the other hand is a player teams target because of his central value to the side. He is a player is the great tradition of Canterbury no 6s. There is the no-nonsense leadership of Don Hayes about him, the willingness to throw himself around and tackle, leap and wrestle like Andy Earl; he has the undervalued aspects of Rueben Thorne and  is the self-less team-man in the manner of Todd Blackadder. What is so important is not only what he does in the tight- both during and after contact, but also his covering, positional play. His ability to read a game is second to none and this means he is a very economical player. Never flashy, never doing the big breaks, he is the master of the hard-graft elements of rugby. He is the centre of the team in a way that the purist appreciates. In days gone by he would have been a certainty to be picked for those long-haul All Black tours where he would have captained the mid-week dirt-trackers, played many games  for his country but few tests, yet could always have been relied upon to step up if required. Next time you get a chance to watch the Crusaders live spend 5 minutes watching George to see how rugby should be played. He may never again play a test, but he is actually far better than so many players who have - or will play many more than his solitary one.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

The situational tribe of the Crusaders

At one stage during Saturday night's defeat of the Bulls by the Crusaders, as I looked around the crowd I was reminded that sports- and in this case- rugby- or more specifically the Crusaders - operate as what we can term a situational tribe.
 By 'situational tribe' I mean that in particular contexts we experience new forms of tribalism, new forms of tribal experience and identity that are specific to particular contexts. There in front of me were a couple of Filipino dads with their sons and daughters, to my left were Maori and Samoan dads and kids, to my right was an Indian dad and his son. Behind us sit a NZ-Scots family; we came to the game with a family of mixed pakeha-chinese identity. In the wider crowd are a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds and identities, a wide range of ages, a mix of males and females, a mix of ethnicities all united, for the period of the match into a particular, transitory tribe called the Crusaders. Of course the Crusaders are first and foremost a professional rugby franchise and this means they are a business and fans are their customers. The success is really that what the Saatchi guru and rugby-head Kevin Roberts terms a 'lovemark"- a brand, a brandmark that creates and inspires a different level of brand loyalty and devotion. The Crusaders have been perhaps the most successful lovemark or superbrand in NZ Rugby outside the All Blacks. The Crusaders management recognize the importance of the event- so we get the horses, the conquest of paradise theme,  the free flags for everyone, the scarves for season ticket holders; yet to keep the tribe coming the team needs to inspire loyalty not only by winning, but even more so by the way they play. This is what was so worrying about the opening games for the Crusaders- and made this past weekend so central. It was not so much that the Crusaders  had lost, but the manner in which they played to loose. The situational tribe identifies as much with the manner in which the team plays as the results they achieve. The manner of play, what they represent in the style they play is what is the transcendent claim of the tribe. For the tribe is, in the end, 'buying' into a particular idea, an identity, a symbolic representation. The transcendent claim is what allows such a disparate group come together to symbolically affirm the situational tribe. The transcendent claim is what is celebrated in a brief overcoming of every-day differences. Last weekend there were positive signs that the transcendent claim was on the way back.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

a worrying- if understandable- lack of depth in NZ rugby

The performance of the NZ super rugby teams over the opening rounds of the competition has reignited a question about player depth in New Zealand. At All Back level there has always been a question of depth in certain positions at particular times- some years at lock, others at first-five, currently at centre and hooker. Yet there have been very few seasons when the overall quality of the All Blacks has been in doubt resulting in the question as to whether they can competently and consistently compete at International level.  In fact it is interesting how often the excuse for failing to win at previous World Cups came down to anything but player depth and competency.

This year however we may need to start thinking about an overall lack of depth across New Zealand rugby to consistently achieve success at Super Rugby. Can New Zealand actually provide 5 quality teams? Do we have the depth? Is this actually where the player drain overseas hits the hardest? Player drain is not an issue at the level of the All Blacks for in the end all that is needed is a quality player in each of the 15 positions and hopefully an adequate backup. We are not yet in a position whereby we do not have 15 All-Black quality players- even though sometimes we have weaknesses within a position and within the larger squad. 

The issue currently facing New Zealand is whether we can truly sustain 5 Super Rugby teams- and in fact, whether we actually should? 
 The problem facing all the franchises is that of choosing a team- in competition from 4 other franchises, from a limited pool of players. It has become quickly and cruelly evident that there is now a  huge leap in quality and performance expected between ITM and Super rugby. The gap between these competitions is nowhere more evident than in the differing performances of the Crusaders and Canterbury. The dominance of Canterbury at ITM Cup does not translate into dominance at Super Rugby. This is surely a very worrying sign regarding the gap between the two competitions. Canterbury has been increasingly caught out by believing the gap can be easily crossed with most of the same players. More widely, many players who perform well at ITM level are increasingly out of their depth at Super Rugby level.  Furthermore, when Super Rugby players head overseas, or relocate franchises within New Zealand, there is increasingly an issue of depth to replace them.

  So, what if we retracted to 4 Super rugby teams? Australia likewise needs to retract to three. South Africa seems to have handled their issues with the threat of relegation, but we need to locate South African rugby with its depth, finances, crowds and internal competitions outside the debates on depth in New Zealand and Australia.  What advantage is there- especially for New Zealand, to have underperforming teams, exposing the lack of depth? Do we need an intermediate tier competition that sits between Super Rugby and ITM Cup? Or do we need a tier one and tier two competition within super rugby itself?

What is evident is that many players are making a leap into - or staying within - Super Rugby who are clearly not really up to Super Rugby standard. It is always easiest to blame coaching for poor performances- yet usually we blame the coach if a team loses and praise the players if the team wins.
 Good coaching can make good players better- and can create a team that plays more than the sum of its parts. Yet too often it appears that we are trying to turn base metals into gold- and coaches are not  alchemists. What needs to be urgently reconsidered is player development and how to overcome the gap between ITM cup and Super rugby. The expansion and continuation of the current number of franchises is in the end a financial decisions. More Teams means more games to cover, more crowds to sell to. This is a global problem with the mediaization of professional sport. In the end the sport and teams are a product to sell. Yet if the product is one that declines in quality, that declines in performance, then the customer (the supporter) decides to send their money and time elsewhere.

Central to the experience of the fan is the emotion of a tribal identity- and this is where super rugby is increasingly failing in NZ. The Crusaders thrived upon such a tribal identity for a number of years as we became accustomed to the realities of professional rugby. But in professional sport we need to remember that the tribe is the supporters - not the team itself. The mistake the Crusaders have made is that of confusing the notion of the tribe with the team. The Highlanders also did this with their emphasis on Otago and Sothland  ITM players. And yet, we must also remember that not only is this a question over where players are drawn from, it is, in the end, that of how many quality players are available.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Clumsy with flashes of brilliance

One of the hallmarks of the title-winning Crusaders teams was a clinical ability to shut-down games. A lead, once gained, was never easily given up - if at all. The aim was to win and to win the opposition had to be starved of the ball and lured into frustration. Even the journeymen were professional in their dedication to clinical play. Acts of brilliance were used to gain the lead and then a rugged, professional attitude was employed to keep the lead. Opposition teams and fans of course are always going to substitute  such terms as illegal and foul for rugged and professional- and at times there were of course cases when this was so. But the other side  of such an approach was the ability to change a game-plan from attack into a defensive attack and to cut out all forms of clumsy play that might or might not come off. Last week  the Crusaders were mentally tired and clumsy, unable to adjust to the game they encountered. This week they played with flashes of brilliance and at time glimpses of the old, often lost, clinical attitude. Yet the Crusaders team of the past would have shut the game down-even of attack and never instituted a play involving a long cut-out drift pass on their 22. While Adam Whitelock threw it, the team itself should never have attempted such move-especially against a team of such ragged possibilities as the Hurricanes. The other area of clumsiness was the number of kickable penalties given away and of course that can be labelled a continuation of the 'rugged, professional attitude'-just wrongly applied.
The signs are there for an improvement and most pleasing is the maturity of Ryan Crotty. The midfield of the Crusaders has lacked a maturity in attitude, that is a consistency, a professionalism, for the past few seasons. Crotty and Fruean were very young-and still are young players; but youth as not the issue, it was one of consistency. Crotty's try was an act of brilliance that he often hints of but, with only 6 super rugby tries, has rarely delivered given the number of games he has played. But more pleasing was the way that, for almost all the game, he controlled the mid-field defence. If Tom Taylor's injury is only minor it could be worth starting him at 2nd-five and pushing Crotty out one position to centre. Fruean can then be used as an impact player if and when required.
 For the skill of a good mid-fielder is to be enact rugby hermeneutics- that is, to be able to interpret the context and offer new understandings and responses. Crotty tonight demonstrated that he is indeed capable of hermeneutics.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Blues 34 - Crusaders 15

Those of us living in Christchurch are aware of the creeping effects of earthquake fatigue.  2011 was a year lived on adrenalin; 2012 was a year when the realities of the long-term effects took hold. No longer could we bluff it that things were going to be be easily-or quickly- or smoothly fixed.  By 2013 we became truly aware of the mundane realities of living in a city that is not really working in a number of ways: bad roading, transport blockages, on-going EQC head-aches, apparent CERA inaction and local council dramas and failures, an inner-city re-build that is really a dystopian no-build and, perhaps most importantly, the awareness that everyone is worn out, emotionally and physically.
 In such a context mental staleness is a reality that has to be worked hard at to overcome.

This is a Crusaders team that has seen little change in on-field personnel for a number of years now. Further more, it is made up of players who went through the quakes and now live in the post-quake realities. More than that they have played together for a number of years without winning a championship. Stale teams often look first to change the coach. Yet as was done at the Chiefs and now at the Blues, the changes in coaching need also  to be accompanied by a change in on-field personnel. Of course the mix has to be right, as is demonstrated by the on-going problems of the Highlanders. Change in itself is not the answer. 

But is the backline in particular that looked tired tonight for the Crusaders - as indeed it did last year. Again it was too lateral without the necessary speed to make it work, too lateral without a straightening punch-runner, too disorganised on both attack and defence. Blackadder has made coaching changes but now must make selection changes. But it is really too late, for what was-and is-needed is a refreshment of personnel from outside Christchurch, outside both the Crusaders and Canterbury squads.  In fact for the good of the players themselves  they need to be able to relocate and learn new systems with different players- and live in a different, un-broken city.

The secret of coaching is often who you don't choose to play. This is going to be the test of Blackadder as a coach if the Crusaders under him are to win a championship.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Mrs Thatcher's rugby franchises

In 1987 the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher infamously stated "there's no such thing as society". Instead there are only individual men and women and there are families.  By this she meant the state was an inefficient deliverer of social support and identity. What did exist in her view was community and culture and  it was in these  that values, identities and meanings were passed on from generation to generation. In community and culture there also existed the mutual interplay of expectations and obligations. Her concern was that the continued recourse to "society" as the provider  and as "the answer"  no longer involved what is termed the social contract- which is precisely that interplay of expectations and obligations.

When discusions of the performance of a  team, club  or franchise occurs no-one ever speaks of a team society or club society. What they talk of is a team culture.  For in sport there is no society. Sport is individual men and women- and the family of the club or team. Yet a club or team does exist in an web of social contracts: the obligations and expectations that exist between team members, management, the owners, the fans- and  increasingly, the media. When coaches speak  of the need to change the team culture they are always speaking of the internal social contracts within the team and  the extended social contracts between the team and the wider community.

The New Zealand franchises provide interesting  examples of the differing ways the social contract is being enacted. If we consider the Crusaders then it appears that which was once a highly succesful culture is starting to fray like a society in breakdown. The Deans years developed a particular culture of community, obligation and expectation that operated on one level as a combination finishing school and borstal. Difficult but talented players were shipped south and either remade or shipped out again. Those with talent gained a polish to both their games and lives. A family ethos, in fact a tribal ethos developed that was far ahead of other franchises as they struggled to adapt to what being professional involved. However, as in all communities, all families, all tribes, the tribal elders determine the culture, ethos and performance. How do they adapt to the changing world? How do they adjust in ways that allow innovation that is intergrated with on-going obligations and responsibities? The way Todd Blackadder has been reported suggests that he is all too aware that a culture change is required within the team and within its leadership. The desire to keep such changes within what can be termed the local tribal elders is a risky one in a time when the notion of the tribe is increasingly fluid. For if the tribe is a fluid resource so too are the tribal elders.

The eminent sociologist Zygmunt Bauman talks of modernity as being a society, a culture defined by fluidity, or in his term, liquid. The origin goes back to Karl Marx and his description of modernity wherein "all that is solid melts into air." Late-modernity is a time and culture of fluid identities, cultures, loyalties and connections. Yet amidst all of this people are looking for solidity, for those things to value and hold on to, for those claims upon how they live their lives that give meaning in relation to others.  The creation and maintenance of a  team culture is really the creation and maintainence of a set of values and expectations, identity and and community amongst an increasingly disparate bunch of young men. It must be fluid in the sense that traditon is not enough in and by itself. It must be innovative in being open to the surrounding changes and possibilities. But it must have at centre a re-thought social contract.

 Consider the alternative of the Chiefs. A couple of seasons ago the social contract obviously wasn't working. So the tribal elders were replaced and in came new leadership who then decided what types of players they wanted within the team. This meant some were let go,  others were retained and re-trained and so was created a new team culture. The players spoke of a new culture, a new culture of expectations and obligations- in effect a new social contract.

Like-wise the Blues appear to have undertaken a very similar approach with an impressive result over the weekend. The turn around of a team playing like a society in urban breakdown last year to a team of collective community this year demonstrates how important team culture is- but also how important tribal leadership and make-up are. The Hurricanes attempted something similar last year but still play as if the social contract is misunderstood at player level. The Highlanders likewise have tried to rethink and reimagine themselves. Yet a social contract is a mutual engagement of management and players, of a fluid interchange of expectations and obligations. This past weekend The Highlanders played like a dysfunctional society, the Chiefs played like a functioning community.
The Hurricanes it seems are a society in transition to a community, while the Crusaders once were a community but seemed on the slide to a society. That is why the Crusders BBQ was such a fascinating and important experience. It was a signal that a culture shift is underway, the return to community.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Why the Highlanders will always be also-rans

I was in Dunedin in the glory days of  Otago and the Highlanders. This was a team composed of grizzled locals and skillful, often intelligent, students. Yet always, despite their potential they could never scale the heights they threatened, for the required consistency was never there. They were capable of audacious moments, periods of great drama, yet also  too capable of losing games they needed to win. In this they mirrored the lifestyle and out-look of the scarfie. The student life is one of peaks and troughs, of playing hard and working hard, of giving things a go because now seems to the right time to do so. The glory of university is that it is a time of privileged escape from the mundane demands of the rest of the world. I won't say the 'real world' for, sociologically speaking, the claim of a particular part of the world, or society being 'more real' than another is meaningless.

What university- and a university town- offer is the experience of the tensions of tradition and innovation, of being accountable and being given on-going chances, of exploring new options and choosing some badly, of living life most often in the present. Those Otago and Highlanders teams had the advantage of being able to attract students and hangers-on who wished to live, study and play rugby in an environment that was- and still is- New Zealand's only university town. Crucially, it was a time when the university was smaller and its reputation as a party -town was secondary to that of a student life-style. The  difference is significant. The student lifestyle attracts a different type of person to that of the party-town. For to maintain a play-hard/work-hard attitude is in the end the ethos of the amateur. The question is raised of how many of the great Otago and Highlanders players of the past would have decided to pursue a professional rugby career from the age of 20? Of course many of them did so at a latter age but they still played with the ethos of the amateur.

In this they reflect the ethos of that constantly shifting body of students who make up the bulk of Highlanders supporters. Students are amateur in ethos for they are in that transition zone between school and career, teenage years and the career-demands of adulthood. A clinical, fully professional team doesn't fit. Secondly, the 'almost achievers' legacy of the past sits heavily upon the town. The Forsyth Barr stadium squats  as a forlorn, expensive expression of the mantra of 'Field of Dreams': "if you build it, they will come".  This may being true of the fans who were not turning up to Carisbrook and now turn up to be be as much part of the crowd experience as they are to necessarily watch rugby.  But building a new stadium does not easily result in  creating a championship-winning or even conference-winning team. The players who are attracted to come south are not necessarily easily integrated into  becoming a coherent, consistent team.  To import stars, often ageing stars, nearing the end-years of their career speaks of the problem of attempting to build a team from the players  already available. These imports may be the gritty professionals, but we see very few of the gifted amateur. This means the Highlanders teams have suffered from being neither the expression  of the gifted amateur nor the gritty professionalism of the modern professional team. They can at times play both- and to marry them together as they did at times last season gives continual hope to all who do or have once supported them in person. Yet as tonight's loss to the Chiefs demonstrated, in the end they lack a consistency of both options- neither gifted amateur enough nor coolly and clinically professional.   Further, to have to choose a winger as your Captain speaks of a startling  and concerning lack of possibilities elsewhere on the field.

What we saw tonight was a team of journeymen who could sparkle individually at times but lacked both the sustained discipline of the professional and the sustained collective attitude of possibility of the amateur. It may be too early to call, but I fear the Highlanders are going to end up bottom of the New Zealand conference.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Crusaders open day. Collecting relics of the demigods

Last weekend I took my two youngest kids on a contemporary pilgrimage to collect relics of the demigods. This was not any common or every day event, this one was select: an event for the inner circle, those few thousand who are Crusaders/Canterbury season ticket holders. We were to be allowed close, dignified and controlled access to the demigods who would await our homage, supply relics, feed us and dismiss us.

Having collected another family of pilgrims, we made our way to the home of the gods, Rugby Park on the edge of Merivale. The choice of the theophany was important. This is not the place whereupon the ritual of combat occurs during the season, not a large, impersonal stadium where everyone else also attends in worship, celebration, collective despair and ritualized hope. No, we were to be allowed close access in the place where they train, the place where the campaign is based and planned. It is decidedly low key, homely even, with a grassy embankment opposite the small, intimate grandstand, a mechano-constructed commentary box and is ringed with deciduous trees: chestnuts, elms and other english imports. This is the romanticized vision and  present heritage memory of what rugby was  meant to be. It signals that while the Crusaders are really a business, a corporate entity in the multi-million global brand of super rugby, at heart we are meant to see them, experience them and support them as a community club, that symbolizes all those 'good, honest' memories and experiences of grass-roots, school and club rugby. This was the Crusaders saying, "We are your club.  We open our home to you and offer you hospitality."

This is how and why we found ourselves lined up along the green corrugated iron fence  stretching down the footpath on Innes road on a Sunday morning. Those of other devotions were worshipping elsewhere that morning, yet unlike them we were guaranteed the theophany, the experience of real presence. The objects of our worship and devotions were to be fully present, were to interact with us, if even for a brief couple of seconds. This was what the Hindus call darshan - whereupon in the act of seeing the god the god sees us and we gain a blessing. Moreover we were to be granted relics that signalled we had been in the presence of the demigods, that the event was one of real presence. All this with bread and sausage and cold drink- it was big and little kids idea of heaven.

The lining up down the street was important for those of us old enough to remember having to queue up along corrugated iron fences to enter games. There was that peculiar smell of warming paint on corrugated iron, that echoing rumble of scattered conversation that reflects off the fence as the crowd stirs in expectation. As the anticipation grows and parents check their watches at children's requests suddenly the gate opens and in we file, as orderly as excitement allows, having to show our email rsvps as evidence of our piety and right to be there.

Inside the conversation buzz elevates as first Aaron Mauger, looking little changed from his playing days, is sighted handing out the team photo sheet. Then, a silver head above the rest of the crowd is spotted: Todd Blackadder.  He stands at the door to the marquee, pen in hand,  brief responses at the ready, the first to sign, the first to be encountered, the coach who acts as sentry, high priest and totem.  Younger members of the crowd, which now stretches back over 100 metres inside the ground are informed by their parents as to who exactly Mauger and Blackadder are. You become suddenly aware of the brevity of fame, of the contemporary currency of what being an All Black entails. For most of the crowd it appears that 'All Black' is only ever a current identity and not a long-term  aura. That is, 'All Black' is the current wearer of the black jersey, moreso, is the one who plays rugby on TV, the one who appears in the advertisements. Once media presence is over so is the currency of 'All Black'. It is only the older fans who still venerate the player and not just the media image.

I was aware of this on seeing Richard Low at a Twizel rowing regatta. He still carried something about  him that made people respond. Those who did not recognize him often asked 'who was that?'
 It was not just his imposing physical presence, it was the  presence of someone who has spent twenty-five years in the public arena, someone who learned to live in the experience of public reaction and response, someone who knew that he  occupied a special place in society, and more so carried a series of responses and expectations, knowledge and falsehoods around with him for the rest of his life. The witty and pithy Richard Low of re-Union is, for many, a far cry it seems from the on-field player that was. The Richard Low  in dapper dress, chatting comfortably with friends and acquaintances, aware yet oblivious to the glances and comments is and yet is not the eye-gouging, nose-breaking enforcer of days past. For many this latter Low is the real Low, however there still remains the media images of reckless brutality of the younger Low as player.  Yet this tension, of real and media, of presence and present, of past and ageing, is what makes the open day so poignant.
For inside the tent, sitting behind trestles, pens in hand are the current Crusaders team.

Here, in close proximity, in shyness, brashness, feigned and real interest, engaging and  slightly distant, articulate and shyly gruff are the young men upon who reside our hopes and dreams, our frustrations and exhilaration.The crowd is not only parents with children, it also includes teenagers with studied coolness, excitable singles, ageing long-term Canterbury stalwarts who have spent most of their supporting days pre-Super Rugby, and then, as with any holy site, any pilgrimage, the crazed, the suffering and the tragic.

The collection of relics begins: team sheets are passed from player to player along the table to be signed. Arms, jerseys, swords and capes are all presented to be inscribed with the mostly often illegible signatures. One  does not have to be able to decipher the signature, it is enough in itself to possess it.  Young children in particular all receive a very positive welcome and comment. Chuckles occur as my three year loudly comments: "they don't look so big sitting down".

Others get photographs of players, photographs with players, the new tourist postcard of the sign of the real:  I did 'meet them', here is the image to 'prove' the truth of the claim. These are just young men in red jerseys sitting in a tent on a Sunday morning. They are bigger, more thickset than the average,  but they are just young men who have had a series of expectations thrust upon them because of athletic ability combined with a certain temperament. The crowds who are usually kept distant are here allowed over that fence- both 'imaginary' and real- that usually separates them.  Here  the team  do have the safety of a controlled encounter with the elect who are expected to know how to behave.
All encounters are kept brief by the necessity to keep the crowd filing in an orderly fashion. There is the mutual acknowledgement of the dialectic of fandom, the necessary dialectic of the fan and the player in professional sport out of which a synthetic third space occurs. This is a tightly controlled, in fact a tightly scripted encounter in which both sides understand the roles they are to play. Neither is to become engaged beyond the superficial and  if the stars are expected to turn on the charisma the fans are expected to perform enthusiastic yet controlled veneration.

Interestingly, there in the right hand corner, three-quarters of the way through is Dan Carter. Thinking about it, the placements appear well thought-out. As we enter, having been granted access   to  the sanctum by Todd Blackadder, we first encounter Andy Ellis. As a local player, as a parent, as an All Black, as a senior pro, as a player who in his success as landscape designer and now budding radio host is the closest thing to a Crusader renaissance man, Ellis is the ideal first player. He can chat with children, he understands media commitments, he is intelligent, conversational and has the aura of the All Black still lingering. We then move  from the initial high ikon through a series of lesser ones along to Kieran Reid who occupies the centre of the trestles. Reid has real presence, he radiates an enthusiasm but also an engagement with the fans. It may only be a performance, but it appears that this is a pleasure for him. He has an intensity of gaze that almost stuns small children. Here is the All Black in close proximity, and whether it is something we lay upon him and respond to, or whether  it is the experience of fame and expectation mixed with that unique combination of physical ability and temperament that all top athletes require, there is something that makes him stand out, something that we all seem to respond to against the rest of the team. That he  is seated centre-stage, surrounded by decidedly lesser members of the team only enforces his difference. He is set apart. He is to be noted and responded to as different. He is the centre of our procession, the centre of our veneration. He is the apex and yet why is not Dan Carter next to him?

The answer is obvious.  It is not only that Reid is the captain and so the central totem of the team. It is obvious when one does encounter Dan Carter. This young man is charisma and presence personified. The reaction of the crowd is very much that this is the god among the demigods. He reduces previously verbose young girls to almost silent inarticulacy. He smiles and your response cannot be separated by the host of media images and occasions that the smile accompanies. He is the STAR, the gifted one; the gift in fact that they as a team have been granted, that we as fans have been allowed to encounter. We come upon him when least expected for he is not centre stage beside Reid, rather he is almost hidden, so one comes upon him almost unexpectedly. This also ensures, being seated as he is on the cusp of the final hinging right angle of the tables, that the crowd cannot hesitate too long without disrupting all who come behind. This is the holy of holys kept special, kept sacred in the original sense of set aside. We come upon him where we would least expect him to be; this may be a staged humility, a staged enforcement that this is a team whereupon the captain is central. And yet the inverse reading occurs. Carter is too special, too important, too sacred to be presented in the most obvious place. That he is so special, so different is enforced by where he sits - and the limitations it places upon our ability to engage. The one who most would wish to linger with is the one  with whom it is most difficult to do so.

And so then we move along the final table and there, at the end, the perfect counter balance to Andy Ellis, the perfect repository of many fans' delight and excitement, is Robbie Fruean. Unfailingly polite and engaged, constantly smiling and with a comment for all, many times a 'thank you' for, in effect, responding to the  team's invitation to worship and venerate.

Then we exited to the bbq sausage and bread, a choice of cold drinks and then, nothing. That was it. You could sit on the embankment and eat your sausage and drink your soft drink. Kids could run and play on the rugby field that was unfortunately just ending its sprinkler cycle and so was somewhat wet.  Nothing else. A bit of chatting and a look back along the crowds still arriving to line up and file in expectation as we had just done.

Looking around, adults and children clutched and wore their freshly signified relics, their evidence of being in the presence of the demigods.
For what is the meaning of these scrawls in marker pen on pieces of paper, on bits of fabric, on soft plastic swords, on rugby balls. It signals firstly that you were in their real presence. The signature is the guarantor of the authentic event. The signature, as the individual identifier - whether legible or not- is taken to be the accepted record of a meeting with the one deemed so special that the name now stands in for the person. My signature is worth nothing because in the world of the fame I do not exist. The signature is proof of the existence of fame and societal meaning and value. This is why the younger, newer, lesser members of the team often seemed uncomfortable, or reticent, or joked about having so any wish to collect their signature. For its signals a shift in their identity- perhaps only seasonally fleeting. For the moment they have fame by wider association. What they signify- as a a member of the Crusaders- is more than  what they embody either within that team or outside it on a daily basis. The fans who now request their handwritten proof of  this player's individual identity would not wish to have it if their signer was not a part of this team. Many  players would also be very aware that many who got their signature had no real idea as to who they were.  Such team members are just part of the collective experience for the fan.  Yet as the team was seated in such an order, we as fans had no real choice as to whether we got their signature or not. It was a demand placed upon our participation. If you want access to the stars, if you want to venerate the stars, if you want this special experience of fandom then all of the team are included. This was strictly controlled and the effect was to signal that the team is more important than its individual starts, no matter how we as fans may wish to concentrate on some over others. The lack of any alternative activity after the signing was also important. We were fed and watered, that is rewarded, for having participated. But there was nothing else to do, for what could compete with the experience of real presence?

So we left, enthused, excited,  in anticipation of the season ahead. We left feeling that we had been part of something special, something  important yet not  really aware of why and how.  But what it was is simple. It was the pilgrimage and ritual of  the relics of  fandom.