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The Roar



How to watch a game of rugby

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27th March, 2020
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In 2003 a friend of mine, Mary Varnham, told me she was starting a publishing company. Her first titles were going to be long essays around a ‘How To …’ theme.

She said she wanted to start the series with a bang and wanted me to kick off the project with a book titled How to Watch a Game of Rugby.

The brief was to create a style for the series that was personal, anecdotal and humorous but with a lot of information and insight collected in the writing.

The back cover conveyed what I tried to do in writing the long essay: “In How to Watch a Game of Rugby Spiro Zavos sets out to convince non-believers that rugby is the world’s greatest game. This amusing and enlightening book will enchant not only keep rugby fans but readers who don’t know a flyhalf from a fullback – yet”.

I had a limited number of words, so I started each chapter with a quotation that gave a sense of what I trying to get across to the readers in each section of the book.

Because the publisher was setting up a New Zealand imprint, most of the context of the essays relate to New Zealand. But they have, in my opinion and hope, relevance for readers from all the other rugby countries.

So here we go.

Rugby Union ball generic

(Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)


How to Watch a Game of Rugby

Rugby is a wonderful concoction of ballet, opera and bloody murder.
– Actor Richard Burton.

On a blustery Saturday afternoon (it was Wellington, after all) in 1970, I trudged up to Athletic Park to watch the final All Blacks trial to select a team to go to South Africa. With me was my partner and later my wife, Judy.

The day before, I had met Chris Laidlaw in the Grand Hotel. There, in the main bar, with the cigarette smoke curling into the thick, beer-stinking air, with the good old boys in their cardigans and blazers leaning on the wet woodwork gossiping about who was going to be selected and who was out, Chris told me he was determined to win back his All Black place from Sid Going.

Laidlaw had been at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship and Going was now the incumbent New Zealand halfback. They didn’t get on well together, Chris told me. Going, a wary Mormon, was angry that the worldly Laidlaw, who was the best passing half back of his era, seemed to be returning to New Zealand like the prodigal son to reclaim his lost inheritance.

The man-on-man battle between these two adversaries was one of the games within the game I was interested in watching during the trial.

I was also intrigued about the eventual selection of the All Blacks.


The coach, Ivan Vodanovich, was a good friend of mine. Ivan had come to Wellington from the King Country, bulked up, developed his scrumming skills and played for the All Blacks in the front row against Australia in 1955. After his playing career was over he had, like so many All Blacks had done over the decades, put his energies into rugby administration and coaching.

I used to ear-bash Ivan with theories about backline play (the flyhalf shouldn’t start running forward until the halfback had actually passed the ball) and how a team should be prepared in the week of a big match.

My theory here was that training should be tapered off, especially on the Thursday and Friday, so that players were full of energy, like a charged-up battery, on the Saturday.

Ivan disagreed. The year before he had trained the All Blacks relentlessly on the Friday before the Test against Wales. It was hot. He had taken his jersey off and the sweat had poured down his massive chest as he yelled and needled the All Blacks into doing their drills with more and more pace and energy.

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The next day the All Blacks played a brilliant first half against Wales and faded in the second half, as I had predicted, to win comfortably but not overwhelmingly as they could have.


Missing from the trial squads was another friend of mine, Ken Gray.

A thoughtful man with brooding, sunken eye sockets and a sophisticated social conscience, Ken had walked down Wellington’s Manners Street one night before Christmas, when the streets were glistening with rain, and had told me he was retiring because his detestation of the apartheid regime in South Africa was so intense he could not bring himself to set foot in that country, not even as a rugby player.

He wanted to retire rather than make a statement about his unavailability. “I don’t want to embarrass Chris or Pinetree (Colin Meads) or Brian Lochore,” he told me.

Ken was the rock of the All Blacks pack of the late 1960s (one of the best teams New Zealand has ever put on a field). Another of the intriguing questions that had to be answered during the trial was whether there was another front-row forward who could adequately replace him,

There were other questions too.

Who would be the bolter in the squad? Teams selected for major tours in this era often included players whose names elicited gasps when they were read out.

Grant Batty, perhaps?


Batty had been a brilliant schoolboy player. Earlier that year I had sat with the famous rugby broadcaster Winston McCarthy at Athletic Park and watched his debut in club rugby. “This boy,” McCarthy told me in a voice that, in the words of Tony O’Reilly, rasped like two mating pieces of sandpaper, “is the most exciting New Zealand back since Bert Cooke.”

As Cooke, a 1920s All Black, was regarded as the greatest inside back New Zealand rugby had produced, the compliment was extravagant.

Ivan Vodanovich had told me that if Batty played through the trial, he would be selected. In fact he limped off the field and had to be replaced.

There was some interesting off-field action to look forward to at the trial as well.

A radical activist I had known at university had told the newspapers he was going to douse himself with petrol and set fire to himself on the half-way mark before the main trial as a protest against apartheid and the tour to South Africa.

The trial match, therefore, had many points of interest for the keen observer like me to watch out for.


And as there is with every game of rugby, whether it is played on a suburban park with a handful of spectators or at one of the great rugby stadiums with huge crowds, there was the theatre of the game and its tribal imperatives.

Australian supporters screaming out, “Tackle, Wallabies, tackle!” as they did at the end of the ‘Gregan’s tackle’ Test or New Zealand supporters singing out, “Black, black, black!” (or, to un-Kiwi ears, “Blek, blek, blek!”) are engrossed in Richard Burton’s view of rugby as the “wonderful concoction of ballet, opera and bloody murder!”.

So I watched with all these emotions and thoughts roiling around in my subconscious as the Probables in their black jerseys and the Possibles in white jerseys trotted onto the clumpy, wind-swept grass of Athletic Park.

At that moment of what for me was the prelude to high drama on the field, Judy bent down and pulled the latest issue of Time magazine from her bag.

She steadfastly read her way through it while the players were vying for the prize of their lives and the spectators were going through emotional ups and downs with the fluctuating fortunes of their favourite players.

A couple of months later, on the night of our wedding, a group of male friends joined me in the bedroom of our hotel to listen to – you don’t have to be at the ground to ‘watch’ a rugby match – the radio broadcast of the second Test between the Springboks and the All Blacks from South Africa.


Chris Laidlaw had won back his halfback position. He had played shrewdly and effectively to guide the tourists to a vital victory.

We (the men in the bedroom) were ecstatic. Judy, though, was not amused.

To be continued.

How to Watch a Game of Rugby, Awa Press, Wellington, New Zealand. The Ginger Series