Thursday, 24 January 2013

Maitland in Tartan

The news that Sean Maitland has made the Scottish squad comes as no surprise to any one who has watched Maitland's play for The Crusaders and Canterbury and, most importantly, watched the way Scotland plays.  Maitland was one of those frustrating players who had pace, size, swerve but like those kids who matured early gave the impression that he had decided natural ability was enough to succeed. Maitland could hit a gap, run as fast as anyone, fill in more than adequately at full-back but, like Robbie Fruean, often tried to do too much by himself and wasn't an instinctive team player. If you watched him during a game he often went missing-just like Fruean. Yet there is more to his game than Fruean's,  for Maitland's utility value is his greatest asset. The problem is that he never seemed sure of where he was playing or who he was playing with. Having Fruean as the centre to run off never suited his style, nor were Fruean or Crotty there  very often in support when he did make breaks. He had all the makings of a top-level player when younger but got increasingly sidelined by the Dagg-Guildford combination that operates on a subliminal level.

The trouble seems to be that Maitland's development as a player never really kicked on at the Crusaders. I would have liked to see him play at centre where his size, pace and ability to kick would have been an asset. As a centre he would have been forced to link with his surrounding players and he would have been able to use his under-rated tackling ability.  Personally I would rather have seen Fruean go than Maitland for Fruean has a much more limited game, and due to his health issues, needs to go missing for recuperative periods during games. Yet Fruean is the type of player who gets the casual fan's endorsement because of the sporadic bullish runs that are more league than rugby.

In Scotland Maitland will be playing a different type of game and he offers the option of another large, fast finisher. Importantly, the slower pace of Scottish rugby will give him the chance to learn a different style of support play and to regain his confidence. There are already speculations that Maitland will make the Lions tour and these shouldn't be discounted as he is a proven success against southern hemisphere players. The on-going Guildford saga means Maitland is going to be missed more than perhaps one would have expected. McNichol looked exciting at ITM but needs to be introduced slowly to the different world of Super Rugby. He needs more than pace and the quality of oppositions that can shut down the Fruean-Crotty inside combination may yet hinder him more than is curently realised. The other alternative of Whitelock is a solid journeyman but would be unlikely to be picked up by any other franchise as anything more than a cover. My guess is that Maitland will surprise as will his development in Scotland and he may yet make the Lion's tour. In the world of professional sport one can't blame him for looking north but as Mike Harris has shown sometimes all a player needs is a shift to another Super Franchise for their potential to be realised. Player development by the NZRFU needs to consider relocating players within NZ franchises first before we lose them overseas. Scotland must be delighted.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Go you troubled young man

Last year, during a Crusader's home game, as Zac Guildford undertook one of his typically diagonal runs through a gap a small voice rang out of the 'take a kid to footy' section: "Go you troubled young man!" 
My (then 9 year old) daughter Phoebe was on her feet cheering the troubled young man as he sprinted, almost to the point of staggering, to the try-line.
 When I asked her why she called him that, she said "well, Mum always calls him that 'troubled young man'".
After that moment, it became a constant refrain from our section to call out "go you troubled young man" whenever Guildford received the ball. Everyone knew of his troubles and such a description seemed apt. We all hoped that he would be able to sort out his troubles and play the type of rugby he is capable of. Yet all too often that sense of him getting the speed wobbles as he sprinted, ball in hand, seems to have slipped over into his off-field life.

Let's be clear. For a young man to lose his father, especially if they are close, takes a lot of time to get over- if they ever do. I speak from experience. My father died on my 18th birthday and it took many years for me to really come to terms with it. Like Guildford I turned often to booze to numb the pain. Yet also, and we need to remember this, I did so as part of the normal socializing of my age group.  I binge-drank alongside future surgeons, doctors, lawyers, dentists, teachers, academics, politicians, businessman and high-ranking members of the armed forces. We worked hard at our studies and then binge-drank. Young men, especially in this country, turn to drink to cope with most things and when we experience a trauma we tend to drink more. We also need to be honest. Guildford's problem is not that he gets drunk but what he does when he gets drunk. If he was a happy drunk, a sad drunk, a blathering idiot drunk, a 'deep & meaningful" drunk, then no-one would really worry. It is because he appears to be an aggressive and violent drunk that the issues arise.
Just as in my student binge-drinking days we all knew who the angry drunks were and tried to avoid them.
What needs to be discussed is whether he was this type of drunk before his father died.
 If he was always an angry drunk then that is the central issue. If he became one post his father's death then that is what needs to be dealt with.

The other question is one of whether his off-field drinking stops him performing on the field. Isn't this the real question. Likewise Piri Weepu's off-season binge-eating. Thinking rationally, doesn't Weepu's binge-eating have a far greater effect on his team, for longer, and on-field, than Guildford's off-field drinking and fighting? Guildford's off-field stupidity doesn't stop his team playing well; Weepu's off-field stupidity does.

Perhaps the solutions is for Guildford to leave a Crusader's environment where he doesn't seem to fit. The best thing for him would to be lent to Chiefs and put under the care of Dave Rennie and Wayne Smith. In 2012 they showed what they can do both on and off the field and both exhibit a pastoral care that is just what Guildford needs.
So we say "Go you troubled young man"- "go north to the Chiefs"- and if the NZRU has any sense that is what they would ask for.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Thoughts on a summer's day

With only just over a month to go, depite it being mid-summer thoughts turn again to rugby.
 Questions to be answered hopefully this coming season:

1: Is Blackadder an innovative coach or is he someone who inherited what was an excellent team in transition and been unable to create or imagine a new way forward? The sacking of Gibson was handled poorly and we have to remember that backs can only operate on the ball provided by their forwards. To replace one Cantabrian with another is either blatant parochialism or a bold gamble.
While Matson continued the dominance of Canterbury at ITM level the gap between the competitions is only ever increasing. The interesting thing will be how Gibson goes at the Waratahs.

2: Is appointing Ali Williams captain the sign of  a Blues franchise exhibiting its central flaw of a lack of maturity and on-field intelligence? Williams in his prime was a very good player but he has been in rapid decline for a number of seasons. Will he actually continue to hold his place as a player over the whole season? Locks who make excellent captains tend to be successful off the field as well ( Matfield, Eales) or lead by pure on-field hardness and brutality (Johnson). Williams appears to be neither- nor does he appear to have a cohesive, mature decision making group at 8-9-10.

3: Will the Highlanders ever be more than mid-season faders? In their glory days the Highlanders played the inverse of the current team- a strength in the backs and loosies with a competent set of tight forwards. Today's Highlanders are strong- but not dominant in the tight; but lack excitement and innovation in the loosies and backs. When they do try to play like the team of the 1990s they lack the persistent flair to unsettle for a whole match. Yet the gung-ho tight forward play under Joseph can only succeed if either loosies or backs contain persistent match-breaking flair.

4: Will a repeat season of the Chiefs result in a push for Dave Rennie to move into the All Blacks coaching set-up? It apparent that the team culture instituted by the new coaching team was the reason behind the change in approach by the Chiefs. Players deemed not fitting were let go, new ones brought in and existing ones revitalised by a new approach. Could something similar be needed soon at the Crusaders?

5: Will the Hurricanes continue their change for the positive? Is Conrad Smith demonstrating the type of leadership needed by the All Blacks in McCaw's absence. Hammett took bold, brutal steps and perhaps the Crusaders of old are actually being remade in Wellington?

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

The type of writers Rugby lacks

An on-going  theme of this blog will be considering books and other writings on Rugby. However it is evident that for some reason Rugby tends to lack the writers that Cricket, Baseball or even Football attract. Is it a case of lacking writers- or is it a case of lacking readers? Perhaps it is more the case of sports publishers tending to lack confidence in the rugby book market, forgetting that many who play, played and support Rugby  are actually intelligent, educated, successful people who are capable of reading more deeply than the usual ghosted autobiography-by-numbers. Of course there are many columns, magazines and articles that analyse the on-field game and who should be in or out. Yet too often there tends to be a lack of any attempt to think more deeply about the game.

Two of my favourite sports writers come from the world of cricket: Gideon Haigh and Ed Smith.

Haigh is transplanted Englishman now living and writing in Australia; Smith is an ex-county and England player, now a highly successful writer and journalist. Both think widely and deeply about not only cricket but also sports and indeed wider issues.

Haigh's recent book about Shane Warne was reviewed by Ed Smith  in The New Statesman last year:

Reading the review makes me want to read the book; not because I like Shane Warne but because he is such a fascinating character- a failed Dorian Gray by botox; the clay-footed genius- and because I know Haigh will make me think about Warne and cricket in new ways. Yet  the review also increased my admiration for Smith and his writing. Smith is one of the top sports writers currently writing- anywhere; yet he writes and thinks more widely than sports. This is perhaps his key- like Haigh he integrates sports as part of a wider consideration of the human condition. Sports is therefore just one of the means we use to think and debate about what it means to be human and live in complex societies.

There is no reason why Rugby could not be written about in the ways Haigh and Smith do about cricket, perhaps we just need to start trying.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

“Great Primitive but modern mythmaking”: selling the religions of rugby & nationhood in New Zealand

As part of my aim to get different thinking and writing about rugby circulating I will also be posting discussions from works in progress such as the following.

[From a work in progress…]

Two quotes frame this thinking; the first from an analysis of New Zealand’s 24 year pursuit for a repeat success in the Rugby World Cup, the second from the pre-eminent New Zealand historian:

Rugby is often referred to as a religion in New Zealand, and in many ways it is. It is a form of worship at least, a means for young and old to gather and pay homage to a sport that pushes all their buttons. (Gregor Paul, 2009, 164).

New Zealand rugby union ranks in socio-cultural resonance with soccer in Latin America and cockfights in Bali.  New Zealand should be a world capital of the historical study of sport. But it is not - almost as though sport is a relgion too important for scholars to tamper with. (Jamie Belich, 2001, 370).          
While New Zealand won the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987, repeat success eluded it until 2011 when the tournament was again held in New Zealand, which advertised itself as ‘a stadium of 4 million’. In the intervening years, myths of national identity were created to sell the meaning of rugby- as a national mythology, as a national religion of identity – to a population seemingly in need of such myths. In selling the national sport and oft-termed ‘religion’ of rugby to a New Zealand society seeking World Cup success, advertising agencies and sports administrators  increasingly engaged in what one ad-man (Andy Blood, TBWA NZ Group) has termed “Great Primitive but modern myth making.”[personal communication]  These mythmaking campaigns drew on the notion of rugby as New Zealand’s religion- as both religare and relegere. Incorporating images and language mixing sport, Maori and Pacific symbols, volkgeist, mythology, and nationalism, examples include Bonded By Blood (using real blood and DNA)[], Of this Earth (transporting earth from New Zealand to France)[], and Thread, the fabric of the nation, using nanotechnology to engrave thousands of fans names onto the thread making up the fern on the Captain’s jersey.  

[By the way I am very interested in what happened to the 'sacred earth' once we lost in the 2007 World Cup. In emails with Andy Blood in 2011 it appears that while the Rugby Museum in Palmerston North [] has a small 'of this earth container' the 'giant one' that contained the seven 'earth capulses' is still at TBWA NZ Group in Auckland]

If I think about all of this via Bruce Lincoln’s Theorizing Myth and Roland Barthes What is Sport, these inter-linkings of mythmaking, sport, advertising and nationalism occurred in a context that appears to lack other myths that could serve to unite the nation. What then is it that New Zealanders are meant to believe that they gain from Rugby?  The answer appears to be that for so many New Zealanders rugby offers something that takes them out of everyday life. This is of course not a novel or unique experience. Worldwide, different sports operate as religions for local populations and also operate across cultures and locations as global religions and religious experiences.  Sports provide myths, narratives, frames of joy and despair. They act as religare- that which binds us and as relegere - ways to re-read our lives and context. Sports express faith, hope, charity, and despair. They demonstrate the possibilities and limitations of being human.  If Rugby is important and if Rugby matters it is because the game and the culture that surrounds it offers something to the country itself- and to those who play it, support it and participate in the clubs that provide the bedrock that culminates in the national team, the All Blacks. 
I want to argue that Rugby myths are a type of sporting, national whakapapa. This term, from Maori culture, refers to the expression of genealogical layers that flesh out identities, including spiritual, mythological and human stories. The rugby myths whakapapa refers to the creation and continuation of a history, a location, a sporting tribe; the creation and propagation of an identity, increasingly mediated by advertising, that speaks of and through who New Zealanders are meant to be, are and what they are meant to stand for. In this whakapapa the religion of rugby has become centrally tied onto myths of nationhood and expressed through primitive mythologies of land, essence, blood, and community, increasingly presented through a romanticization of warrior culture extended to the whole nation. While NZ won the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987, its failure to repeat this success became the obsession of myths of quest narratives and national identity. The success in finally regaining the World Cup in 2011, in the competition played once again in New Zealand, was presented to the nation as a moment of national redemption. 
Such primitive myths are extensions what the sports writer Spiro Zavos expressed in “The Joy of Rugby”. Written in the lead-up to New Zealand’s successful pursuit of the inaugural Rugby World Cup (1987), Zavos’ essay celebrates the All Blacks as symbols of national virtue and meaning: “courage, toughness, enterprise, innovation and perseverance” (Zavos, 1989, p.55). Zavos then extends the analogy, claiming that there is a national moral dimension, in a correlation between the nation playing Rugby well and living well. 
My aim is to evaluate the myth-making of rugby and nationhood in New Zealand over the past 25 years, concluding with a reading out of the work of Daniel Dubuisson (2006), that myths do not precede religion, they are, rather, central contemporary embodiments and expressions of what we wish religion (and in this case nationhood) to be and to value –via the religion of rugby. For such modern primitive myth-making argues that sport might add value and meaning to life; that rugby might add myths and meaning, transcendence and hopes, offering possibilities of taking us out of our everyday and mundane lives. Rugby whakapapa is indeed “Great Primitive but modern mythmaking”.
Barthes, R. (2007). What is Sport? trans. R. Howard. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Belich, J. (2001). Paradise Reforged. A History of the New Zealanders from the 1880s to the
Year 2000. Auckland: Allen Lane The Penguin Press.
Dubuisson, D. (2006). Twentieth Century Mythologies: Dumezil, Levi-Strauss, Eliade.
London: Equinox.
Lincoln, B. (1999). Theorizing myth: narrative, ideology, and scholarship. Chicago: University of
            Chicago Press.
Paul, G. (2009). Black Obsession. The All Black’s Quest for World Cup Success. Auckland:
Exilse Publishing.
Zavos, S. (1989). “The Joy of Rugby”. In R. Palenski (Ed.), Between the Posts. A New Zealand Rugby
 Anthology. (47-56). Auckland: Hodder & Stoughton, 1989.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Thinking differently about Rugby

 Why A Fan's Notes?

This blog is an attempt to do something different as to how Rugby is thought and discussed, analyzed and debated. I write as a fan, a critic, an (often overly) enthusiastic spectator and also as an academic who teaches and writes on sport. It is written for all of us who wish to read and discuss more than the usual platitudes, banalities and generally limited thinking and discussion that all too often seems to occur. Cricket has a rich history of intelligent, perceptive writing, as does Baseball. The writing on both sports transcends the limitations and superficialities of much Rugby writing, yet there is no reason why this situation should continue. Likewise Football has a enviable literature that places the game in a wider context.

Of course there is writing on Rugby that we have often forgotten and part of this blog's aim is to discuss such books and other sports books and writings that help s think about rugby and being a fan.

In this blog I also aim to cover the 2013 season,writing about rugby as experienced live from my season ticket holder 'take a kid to footy' seats here in Christchurch where we sit three rows back from the opposition benches, and on TV  from the couch in the lounge where increasingly most of us watch our wider rugby.

 This blog takes its name from one of my favourite books, Fred Exeley's A Fan’s Notes. A Fictional Memoir (New York: Harper & Row, 1968). Exley's novel of the intersections of fandom, American Football, alcoholism and madness contains a statement that for me sits at the heart of what sports - and in particular, Rugby - can offer.

Writing of the New York Giants, Exley states:
“The giants were my delight, my folly, my anodyne, my intellectual stimulation …an island of directness in a world of circumspection…a life-giving, an exalting force”.  

This is similar in sentiment to what has become almost a cliche in writing about Rugby in New Zealand, John Mulgan's statement in Report on Experience ( orig.1947) that in its succinct inclusiveness has the value of a post-colonial aphorism:

“Rugby football was the best of all our pleasures: it was religion and desire and fulfilment all in one”
    [ John Mulgan, Report on Experience (Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1984) 7].

I  am also often reminded that, as South African writer J.M. Coetzee (1992) has noted, rugby operates as a release from time, a release from entropy, offering “the allure of time redeemed from chronicity”

[ J.M. Coetzee, “Four Notes on Rugby” ed. J.M. Coetzee, Doubling the Point. Essays and Interviews, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992) 123.]

What this means is that in rugby time speeds up and slows down, everyday time is forgotten and we became caught up in the drama unfolding before us.