It is perhaps time to inquire whether the violence, both actual and ritual, the injuries and the cheating in rugby in any way help, lift or inspire the families, children and society in general in New Zealand.
The British and Irish Lions rugby team beat the New Zealand national team the All Blacks in a test match in Wellington on Saturday evening. This is remarkable for at least two reasons.
A victory over the All Blacks in a test match on home turf is rare. Rugby is New Zealand’s best supported and most passionately followed game. No other country supports Rugby Union so strongly and with such passion. This gives the national team the All Blacks an advantage against most challengers. Few other countries play it, and it is the dominant code in probably no other country. After all it took four countries to create the British and Irish Lions.
The code’s dominance in New Zealand means Rugby Union has a massive influence on the country’s national culture and self image.
The second remarkable feature is that the All Blacks were brought down by an act of their own brutality. All Black star Sonny Bill Williams shoulder charged an opponent full in the face in front of officials and spectators. Williams was sent off leaving the All Blacks a man short and at a severe disadvantage for the rest of the match. He pleaded guilty at a judicial hearing and has been suspended for four weeks.
In the same match Lions forward Sean O’Brien was cited for bashing All Black Waisake Naholo in the face. Naholo was taken from the field to be checked for a concussion and didn’t return during the match. O’Brien escaped a penalty after a long hearing by the Judicial Committee.
These two aspects of Saturday’s match may point to flaws in the game and the culture that embraces it.
Most New Zealanders have a long history with Rugby. It was all but compulsory to play it and support the first fifteen at secondary schools in the ‘60s. Many and probably most New Zealanders followed the All Blacks over the years and attended rugby matches when major occasions presented themselves. Years ago we gathered at friends’ houses to sit up all night playing cards, drinking beer and watching the All Blacks live by satellite when they toured Britain and South Africa. We especially enjoyed matches at Cardiff Arms Park in the ’70s.
Welsh rugby supporters love their game and it seems to fit with a positive, wider social context of communities, clubs, drinking and singing. It seems a far cry from the way the All Blacks insist on winning at all costs, on dominating the game, some say by cheating.
A larger than life statue to Colin “Pinetree” Meads was unveiled a few days ago. Until last Saturday night he was the last All Black to be sent off during a test match. That was nearly fifty years ago. He is a national hero in New Zealand. Welsh friends know Meads as a cheat. Some British sports writers and even some in New Zealand allege cheating is routine by All Blacks. Some cite the recently retired captain Richie McCaw.
England prop David Flatman said McCaw perfected the art of lying awkwardly on the ball and getting away with it “more than any other No. 7 in the world”.
Mark Reason, an experienced sports journalist who has worked in Britain for the Telegraph and Sunday Times, and now for Fairfax Media, writes “With the amount of sheep living in this country perhaps there is no surprise that New Zealand teams are so fond of shepherding, but it is a blight on the game.” He says it amounts to “coached cheating” at senior levels of the game in New Zealand.
All this is a poor example to the youngsters and future parents of New Zealand, but rugby has a darker side.
The game is violent and dangerous. Concussion is common. Statistics show clearly the role of Rugby in causing head injuries in New Zealand and it may lead to mental impairment in later life.
The Accident Compensation Corporation (which funds treatment and compensation for accidents in New Zealand) says 21% (7,350 injuries per year) of all head injuries in New Zealand are sustained through sport related activity. Injuries are most frequently suffered during rugby, cycling and equestrian activities. Actual numbers are hard to find but by comparing the numbers of players in these sports it could be assumed most head injuries are suffered by rugby players. As we saw on Saturday night not all serious injuries are accidents.
A Maori Haka precedes all major matches by senior New Zealand teams. The All Blacks and increasingly other New Zealand teams insist their opponents must stand respectfully during the performance. A war dance on a field of play is discordant for some observers, but for many a more serious line was crossed when a throat cutting gesture was part of the performance by the Auckland Blues in front of the English and Irish Lions. It was particularly insensitive in view of the recent slashing knife attacks in London.
It is perhaps time to inquire whether the violence both ritual and actual, the injuries and the cheating in any way help lift or inspire the families, children and society in general in New Zealand.
New Zealand has shameful rates of child abuse, domestic violence (at or near the bottom of the OECD for maternal mortality and partner violence against women) and Maori incarceration. If these factors indicate something is wrong in New Zealand society, then perhaps it is time to examine the national religion which is the muddy, bloody brutality of the national game and our perceptions of ourselves as warriors. There may be ways for the very popular game of rugby to help produce a kinder, gentler generation of boys or it can feed their darker side.
Doubtful Optimist is a keen observer