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.