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How to watch a game of rugby: Part 2

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29th March, 2020
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When How to Watch a Game of Rugby came out in the shops there was a great deal of media interest in the book and its author.

This is the most exciting part of being a published writer. The book is complete. The hard work of writing – and it is very hard work mentally and physically – is over. You can hold the book in your hand.

The frisson of holding a newly printed book in your hands is akin to hugging your baby child.

And most importantly, you do not have to confront the awful reality that no-one might actually buy the book. At this moment all is hope.

Clive James summed up that dreaded feeling that the book might be a flop that will be enjoyed by your enemies – and as a writer with strong opinions on everything I had many enemies among my fellow journalists – with the wicked aphorism: “The book of my enemy has been remaindered”.

Most of the interviews with radio presenters were done from the office of the publisher. These interviews tended to be stacked up one after another, rather like planes hovering over an airfield in a holding pattern.

There were a lot of one-on-one interviews with reporters, with all of them looking for a different angle to lead their copy.

Trying to ‘sell’ the book to these reporters and the interviewers was a constant slog to find new angles or to beat up insights and information that I had gathered together to write it.


One book store event was arranged. The bookshop at Canterbury University had made a heroic order of 180 copies. They arranged for the publisher to organise a question-and-answer session at the bookshop. To generate sales they had posters put up all around the university publicising the event. And to start the event with some panache, a bagpipe player had been organised to lead me into the bookshop.

We stayed with a friend who lived about a ten-minute walk from the university. As we walked to the bookshop on the morning of the event I experienced pangs of dread about how it would go. Would any students turn up?

“Tom Keneally once told me,” I muttered nervously to Judy, “never to have a book launch. No-one ever turns up for them, he reckoned.”

A sudden and ominous rainstorm hit us as we marched doggedly on.

James Ryan of Ireland makes a break

(Phil Walter/Getty Images)

At the bookshop everything was in readiness for the great event. The publisher and the store manager fussed around setting up seats. They seemed to be catering for about 30 people or more. The interviewer, an old friend, helpfully took me through the questions he wanted to ask. He told me that after about 20 minutes he was going to open up the forum for questions from the audience.

Then we stood around outside the bookshop in some anxiety waiting for the piper to lead me inside in style.


The event was supposed to start at 11 o’clock. I looked inside the shop and it was empty of students congregating for the event or even anyone else other than our delegation and staff.

At 11.15 there was nothing for it but to begin the show.

So I was piped into an empty bookshop. It was a surreal experience.

With Judy, my publisher, the bookshop manager and two salespeople as an audience, the interview began and was concluded in about 15 minutes.

There was a happy outcome to this sad story. All 180 copies of my book were sold at the Canterbury University bookshop, one of their best sales of any book that was not a set text.

In the first episode I wrote about how many narratives can come out of an individual game of rugby.

This episode tries to give a theoretical context to this notion by putting forward the theory that every person listening – which is watching with your ears – or watching a game of rugby either at the game or on television sees their own game.


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How to Watch a Game of Rugby
No-one sees the same game

We see an object in the paint with which a surface is marked, rather than simply seeing the marks. One may see a spaniel in a spaniel in a painting by Landseer, for example, but one may also see a gleam of loyalty in the spaniel’s eye: or discern heroism, optimism or nostalgia.
– Richard Wollheim.

All the subplots around Chris Laidlaw, Sid Going, Ken Gray, Ivan Vodanovich, Grant Batty, Bernie the activist and Judy, which came together during the 1970 All Blacks trial match, bring us to Richard Wollheim, a leading authority on the history and theory of painting.

Wollheim argued, as the quotation at the top of this essay suggests, that the good watcher must try to achieve a ‘seeing in’ of the objects in a picture.

The good watcher, he said, sees more than the marks on the surface of the painting. He or she sees into the painting. Wollheim used the example of the good watcher who sees the “gleam of loyalty in the spaniel’s eye” in a painting by Landseer to make his point.


The more knowledge the good watcher brings to this seeing in process, Wollheim insisted, the sharper and truer this knowledge becomes. The good watcher recreates the painting with the various narratives they bring to the viewing.

We can apply this theory, I believe, to how we watch a game of rugby.

A rugby match, according to this seeing-in theory, is never an objective reality. No one spectator sees the same match the same way as any other spectator. The good watcher brings his or her personality and knowledge and passion to the game: the ‘seeing-in’ experience is therefore different from person to person.

The good watcher, in the arts world vernacular, ‘subverts’ the rugby match. It becomes what the good watcher wants to see or thinks they see.

For my future wife, Judy, for instance, that final trial was a doorway opening into an unknown experience that she might have to come to terms throughout her life with me. But she did not have to stride through the door at this time.

For the All Black selectors, the trial was chance to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of various players in positions (the prop forwards) they were having difficulty in filling.

For me, there were the stories involving Chris Laidlaw, Sid Going and Ken Gray’s likely successor as well as the pre-game anti-apartheid protester. All these stories and many others personalised the trial for me. And what I was experiencing, in different ways and with different narratives, was what all people in the crowd were experiencing as well.


The insights of Saul Alinsky in his book Rules for Radicals are useful here in establishing how the personal narratives in this context of watching a game of rugby are created.

Alinsky argued that events (like rugby matches, presumably) become experience only after they have been reflected on. For most people life is a series of happenings that go through their system ‘undigested’. The happenings are not internalised, in other words. Happenings become experience (or what I call narratives) when they are digested.

The digested happenings, which have been turned into part of a person’s existence, or experience, can then be related to general patterns and synthesised.

Izack Rodda going to work at the lineout

(William West/AFP/Getty Images)

The good watcher of rugby, following Alinsky’s paradigm, opens himself or herself up to a plethora of narratives by knowing as much as possible about rugby, its history, its laws, its culture, its tribalism, its literature, its beauty, its ugliness, its customs, the players and the thinkers, what happened in past games and what will happen in the future.

They know, or should know, what the advantages or disadvantages are with playing with the wind, whether it is generally best to have the captain of a side in the forwards, whether one of the centres should be a tackler and the other a runner (a theory of Dr AF Markotter, the famed South African coach of the 1920s), how tall the loosehead prop should be, and so on – in short, the zen of rugby embraces, as Bob Dwyer once noted, a thousand or so bits of information that inform the rugby practice and culture.

The good watcher too should try to be at the game. Certainly you can ‘watch’ rugby on television, or imagine the game through a rugby commentary, but these methods are one step removed, like viewing a print of a painting rather than the painting itself.


If you are not at the game, you miss the big-picture view. The television screen gives close-ups of individual contests, but it can show only one event at a time – a scrum, say, or a maul or a big tackle.

This, moreover, is the view the television commentator gets. The commentators must only talk about what the producer put on the television monitor in front of them. They are at the ground, but they see essentially what a person at home in front of their television sets sees. And the screen can’t show you where all the players are nor all the contests and events that occur at any one time during a match.

One time, this was the early days of television broadcasts, I was in a commentary box as an observer to write a colour story about how the commentary was managed. At one point in the match there were massive roars from the crowd which were not matched in a dull period of play on the field. The commentator turned to me and mouthed: “What’s happening out there?”. The irony was exquisite. Here was a commentator seemingly describing a Test to hundreds of thousands of watchers around the world, and he had to ask someone what was going on.

I quickly wrote a note: “A couple of players are having a fight well away from the play”.

Of course this discussion should not be seen in any way to disparage the marvellous contribution that television has made to our enjoyment from watching rugby. Only a limited number of people can actually be at the ground to watch a match. The spread of rugby as an international game played in over 100 countries is directly related to the rise of televised sport.

Every time I put on the television to watch a match from some part of the world I get a sense of exhilaration. The brightness of the spectacle and the sheer magic of being able to watch a game being played in another country is the equivalent of being taken on a magical mystery trip.


Before television brought rugby into people’s living rooms there were master broadcasters adroit at painting a picture of what was happening in front of them. In New Zealand there was none better than Winston McCarthy.

I got to know McCarthy well after he retired from broadcasting. He told me the secret to radio commentary was light and shade in the broadcast. When there was crucial lineout on the tryline he would drop his voice to a whisper to force the listener to concentrate on what was going to happen. His most famous catchphrase also forced the listener to somehow participate in the call when a conversion or shot at goal was taken: “Listen, the crowd will tell you … It’s a goal!”.

I was at home one wet and windy Saturday afternoon in Wellington. The north-south match was being played at Athletic Park. McCarthy’s broadcast made the game so exciting I felt I just had to be there. I rang up a cab and got to the godforsaken ground in time to watch all of the second half. The South Island players in their muddy white jerseys were impossible to distinguish from their black-jerseyed opponents. The game was a boring slog of kick and chase with little or no handling or passing. It certainly had none of the excitement or brilliance that McCarthy’s broadcast enhanced it with.

This brings me to my key point. The live ‘seeing-in’ experience is best for the rugby lover because the good watcher can control what he or she wants to see at the game. With the advent of the big screen at the main stadiums, the watcher can get the close-ups while still being able to put the scrum or the maul or the lineout that is being highlighted into the context of what is happening on the field and around the ground.

By comparison, if you watch a match on television, you are dependent on the pictures the producer allows you to see. You see the director’s game. You do not see your game.

How to Watch a Game of Rugby by Spiro Zavos (Awa Press, Wellington NZ)