Tuesday, 25 February 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 3 February 2014

Recovering my religion? why sports provides meaning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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