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How to watch a game of rugby: Part 4

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8th April, 2020
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Not long after I started writing a rugby column for The Sydney Morning Herald, radio sports journalists started ringing me up to get my opinions on the latest rugby stuff-up.

Almost to a man, they would begin their interviews with this question: “How is it that someone with a name like yours is writing about rugby?”

The implication, of course, was that I should have been writing about football, the migrants’ game.

My answer usually was this: “I was born in New Zealand. All New Zealanders, even sons of migrants like myself, know everything about rugby.”

That immersion in a rugby culture I experienced was back in the days when New Zealand was an unreconstructed rugby nation. Every aspect of life – for men, women and children, even children of migrants – had rugby implications.

The Daily Telegraph in the UK summed up this New Zealand obsession with rugby with this observation: “In America, a guy might wake his partner up in the middle of the night to make love. The Kiwi bloke would wake her up to watch the All Blacks on TV.”

The real joke here is that it was probably the Kiwi bloke’s partner who was really the bed-mate who wanted to be woken up for the rugby Test.

This obsession with rugby started early in those days. Or at least it did for me.

The nuns at the Star of the Sea convent at Seatoun, Wellington, where I was a boarder for my primary school years, for example, provided only one outside tuition person for us, a rugby coach.

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No doctor, no nurse, no tuition in woodwork at the school, no special maths or arts teacher.

But there was a rugby coach so that out of the 50 or so boys in the covent school, covering all the primary school years, Star of the Sea could provide a rugby team that was able to match the bigger and tougher Marist Brothers schools in our area.

Rugby was the way for outsiders like myself, with the double bind of being a child of immigrants and a Catholic, to integrate into a New Zealand that was dominated by what academics called at the time the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) majority.

Most rugby competitions around New Zealand, for instance, had their essentially Catholic teams, generally called Marist. There used to be an annual Marist rugby tournament with the national Marist side playing one of the provinces.

Our first coach at Star of the Sea was a fine young player who represented Wellington at fullback, Joe Phillips.

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Every Monday the nun in charge of the top school, a combination of standards 3-6, read out an account of Joe’s match published in the Wellington newspaper.

I still remember Mother Pauline reading out the word ‘ubiquitous’, which was used to describe our coach’s play. She explained that it meant being everywhere on the field, which was a good description of how Joe played at fullback.

He was a running fullback, rather than the usual custodian. He was brilliant rather than sound. But he had two great running fullbacks ahead of him in the All Blacks, Jack Kelly and the incomparable Bob Scott, the greatest rugby player I have ever had the pleasure of watching play.

One night Joe brought a new type of rugby ball to our weekly practice session. The ball was narrower and more pointy than the plump, rounded typical rugby ball.

Joe explained that he had signed a rugby league contract to play in England for the Bradford Northern club. He was sailing away in a month or so and needed to get some practice in kicking and passing the rugby league ball.

Another memory is how we lined up on the front lawn of the convent waving our towels in the hope he saw us from the deck of his ship making its slow way through the heads and out into the ocean.

Joe Phillips became a local hero at Bradford Northern, on and off the field. I always followed the side in the UK rugby league championships as a mark of thanks for his efforts at coaching us.

The replacement of Joe Phillips was a New Zealand sporting legend, Charlie Oliver, one of the few double All Blacks: a player who represented the nation at rugby and cricket.

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Mr Oliver, as we called him, would chat to us about his rugby days. I remember quite vividly one occasion when he showed us a twisted little finger. “Never forget boys,” he said, “the Welsh did that to me.”

I have been often criticised in my rugby writing career for being unduly harsh on the so-called Home Unions. Thinking back on it, I believe that a great deal of this animosity was generated out of a reverence for Charlie Oliver and a determination to honour his sacrifices for his country on the rugby fields of Great Britain.

The point about this personal history is that the New Zealand educational method of reading, writing and rugby (the real three Rs) had a profound impact on the nation’s culture and lifestyle that only started abating several decades ago.

Peter Roebuck, who wrote as perceptively about rugby as he did cricket, once noted the impact of a sporting obsession on a society: “Sport has an extraordinary effect on otherwise sane people. Critical faculties are brushed aside for the glory of the moment and the winning of the contest. Partly it is nationalistic fervour, partly glimpses of beauty offered upon a field. Partly it is the recollection of lost youth, partly the primeval urge of man against man.”

And the sport in New Zealand was rugby.

All Blacks fans.

(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Everything was seen in the prism of rugby. My sons, for instance, have complained that books that I’ve given them have notes scribbled in the margin describing the rugby implications of a certain event or a sequence of facts.

We took it for granted, too, that everyone played, no matter how scholarly or awkward they were on the field.

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Rugby became our template by which we judged people. This was the mindset that led me to collect quotes about the impact of the game on the character development of a person.

Later on, in some of my rugby writing, especially in How To Watch A Game Of Rugby, I began to develop the theory that there was a moral aspect to the rugby game that if accepted by everyone who loved the game would make them better people.

The British sports journalist Adam Nicholson summed up this theory very neatly this way.

“Rugby, of course, is the perfect game. All the necessary elements are there. It is exceptionally difficult to play well, and to make a move work extraordinary precision and control are needed in the most hostile of circumstances. But at the same time – at the moment that finesse has to be put into action – it demands a boxer’s depth of resolution in the services of the skills of a watchmaker.”

I began to collect extracts from novels and essays about rugby games and incidents.

James Joyce, for instance, has a sequence in his short story collection, The Dubliners, about rugby training on wet mornings at his Dublin school.

There is a terrific account of a rugby match in How Green Was My Valley.

A former New Zealand All Black triallist, Greg McGee, wrote a searing play, Foreskin’s Lament, that is one of the best sports play ever written.

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I once collected a trove of fiction about rugby, including a novel by the South African Alan Paton, that had a story line about a prospective Springboks champion in the 1960s who fell in love with a black woman, with terrible consequences for the star-crossed lovers.

A treasure trove of rugby fiction, mainly, was bundled up and sent off to a publisher in hope of an anthology being published. The idea was rejected. But I noticed that some time later an anthology rather like mine was published by the publisher.

I used the trove to put together a list of prominent people in history who had some sort of connection with rugby, either as a player or as in the case of Toulouse-Lautrec as a painter and admirer of athletic rugby players.

When I started shaping up the chapters of How To Watch A Game of Rugby I thought it might be interesting to publish a lot of this material in an essay called The Ultimate Team.

The idea was not entirely a new one back in 2004. But my essay contained a number of names of famous people who were not on the usual lists. And I tried to give the list a weightiness by linking this community of rugby players, with links going back to the 1840s at Rugby School to the present day, with the Catholic notion of the community of saints. So I called the chapter The Ultimate Team.

Incidentally, I came across a new teammate to join the community rugby players and watchers a few nights ago when I was watching the Ken Burns documentary on country music’s Kris Kristofferson. Kristofferson played rugby as a college student in California before going to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, apparently.

If anyone has names of well-known people who played rugby not mentioned in this 2004 essay (Tony Abbott comes to mind) I’d like to be informed about them.

Now read on.

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How to watch a game of rugby: Part 4
The Ultimate Team
Like the Catholic concept of the community of saints, there is a community of players and watchers of rugby – the rugby tribe.

“St All Black pray for us,” MK Joseph wrote in his satirical masterpiece, A Secular Litany.

All those men and women who played or watched rugby so many years ago, those players and watchers now, and those who will play and watch in the future, are part of the rugby tribe.

Some members include Pope John Paul II, who played rugby in Poland as a young man, and Ernest Rutherford, New Zealand’s Nobel Prize winner for splitting the atom, who was an enthusiastic player at Nelson College.

Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, the guerrilla who put chic into terrorism, was a centre who should, perhaps, have played on the extreme left wing. He took up rugby when studying medicine in Buenos Aires in the 1950s and was so infatuated with the game that he started his own magazine, Tackle.

At the other end of the political spectrum, Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, claimed that rugby was his favourite sport. The sport was popular in Germany during the 1930s, with the national team defeating France occasionally.

This success may have inspired Oswald Mosley to call rugby “a really fascist game”. Perhaps this slur on the inclusive rugby ethic is what attracted the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu to play the game.

Another well-known despot, Idi Amin, was in the reserves of the East Africa XV that lost 39-12 to the 1955 Lions. Journalist Allan Hogan recalls interviewing Amin when he was a dictator of Uganda. Hogan was met at the airport by Amin’s adviser Bob Astles, a short, portly Englishman, who was sporting the black tie with silver fern of the New Zealand Rugby Union.

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At least three presidents of the United States have had a connection with rugby.

Woodrow Wilson, when a college president, tried to turn American colleges to the code, rather than its rival football. “Rugby has a great advantage of the association game,” Wilson orated, “and all the croakers in our midst must be silenced.”

President George W Bush played fullback at Yale. And although JFK never took the rugby field, his brother Teddy played in the centres as a student.

Bill Clinton, a Rhodes Scholar in 1967, the same year as All Blacks halfback Chris Laidlaw, was an ungainly but enthusiastic second-rower on the playing fields of Oxford. When, as President Clinton, he arrived in New Zealand a quarter of a century later, the first thing he said to Prime Minister Jim Bolger was, “How’s my friend Chris Laidlaw?”.

Bolger, a former rugby hooker (as was another National Party prime minister, Sir Keith Holyoake), was not amused: Laidlaw was a Labour MP and Bolger was leader of the National Party.

Holyoake and Bolger, with their rugby background, were following the tradition of Richard Seddon, prime minister of New Zealand when the national side played their first Test against Australia in 1903, who rejoiced in the nick-name ‘The Minister for Rugby’.

Georges Forbes, prime minister of New Zealand in the 1930s, had captained the Canterbury provincial side in 1892.

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Historian, legislator and diplomat William Pember Reeves, author of the first history of New Zealand and a memorable poem about George Nepia, also played representative rugby for Canterbury as a young man.

Kim Beazley, another Rhodes Scholar and later leader of the Australian Labor Party, was part of a tradition of Australian politicians being rugby players.

The first Prime Minister of Australia, Edmund Barton, played in the centres.

Ben Chifley, famous for “light on the hill” vision, was a dashing loose forward. So too was the former deputy prime minister and leader of the Country Party, Doug Anthony.

Burly Mark Latham, elected Labor leader in 2003, was a coarse rugby fanatic and a dedicated singer of rugby songs.

Literary types, too, have been rugby players.

Poet Rupert Brooke was outstanding in the centres at Rugby School. The school magazine described his play: “Though not brilliant, usually in his place and makes good openings but tackles too high”. Other Rugby School old boys include Charles Dodson (also known as Lewis Carroll) and Salman Rushdie. Another World War I poet, Robert Graves, was a fullback for the First Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers in a match played in France during the war.

Novelist Bryce Courtenay was a small but lively winger in the then-Transvaal, where he played in a curtain-raiser before the South Africa-New Zealand Test in 1949. New Zealand playwright Bruce Mason played as a winger in the navy during the Second World War. His brother was an All Black. The 1991 film of Mason’s brilliant play, The End of the Golden Weather, featured Steve McDowell, the mobile All Blacks prop, running up and down the mythical beach at Te Parenga carrying rocks to build himself up.

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Greg McGee, the author of the dramatic rugby play Foreskin’s Lament and a rangy loose forward, once had an All Blacks trial. Dan Davin, the novelist and famous expatriate New Zealander who developed the Oxford University Press, sported a broken nose – a rugby accident – all his life. Dylan Thomas and his wife Caitlin stayed with Dan and Winnie Davin at Oxford and borrowed a couple of rugby jerseys to sleep in, the light blue of Otago University for the poet, and the red and white of Balliol for his wife.

Novelist Maurice Gee player centre and wing as a young man for Auckland. His first novel, The Big Season, published in 1962, concerns the repercussions of a murder in a small New Zealand country town, where the residents are more obsessed with the fortunes of its rugby team than the crime that’s taken place in their midst. Gee described his love of rugby this way: “I like to watch rugby as a spectacle. I know this sounds pretentious, but there is something almost beautiful in rugby when it’s played properly. You can see the patterns and the movements and you almost appreciate it aesthetically.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gave his famous detective Sherlock Holmes “the case of the missing three-quarter” to solve. The character of the dashing and missing centre was based on the career of RW Poulton-Palmer. Heir to a biscuit-manufacturing empire and arguably England’s greatest back, Poulton-Palmer captained England in the 1914 international between England and Scotland, won by England 16-15. This was the last international played in the northern hemisphere before the outbreak of the First World War, in which Poulton-Palmer, several of the forwards and most of the backs in the England team lost their lives.

Rugby has also attracted some notable thespians.

Donald McIntyre, the world’s first-choice Wagnerian bass-baritone in his era, was a tigerish number eight in the Mount Grammar First XV. Boris Karloff, when not terrifying youngsters in horror movies, was the secretary of the southern California Rugby Union. Gerald Depardieu, the broken-nosed French film star with the build of front-row forward, is passionate about rugby. In the film The Closet, a comedy about a worker who tries to save his job by claiming to be gay, Depardieu comments: “How can we defeat the All Blacks and the Springboks when they have the Super 12?”

Richard Harris, the great film actor, cherished the days he played in the Munster under-20s more than any of his triumphs on the silver screen. He was buried in his Munster jersey. Richard Burton had an unrequited ambition to play for Wales as a loose forward. He wrote up his rugby experiences in A Welcome in the Valleys. Spike Milligan, a fullback in his army days, had a special admiration for the All Blacks. He desperately wanted to test himself by tackling one of the “unsmiling giants”.

In the Shelbourne Hotel, after the All Blacks had defeated Ireland once again, Milligan saw his chance. Leaning on the bar about 20 metres away, with his back turned to the other drinkers was the great All Blacks flanker Ian Fitzpatrick. Milligan gathered himself into a battering ram position, raced across the room and hurled himself at the unsuspecting Kirkpatrick. His shoulder smashed into Kirkpatrick’s back, with great violence. Milligan bounced metres away and tumbled to the carpet. The drink that Kirkpatrick was carrying in one huge fist did not spill a drop.

“Geez,” Milligan wheezed as he pulled himself up from the carpet, “these All Blacks are men of iron. No wonder we can’t beat them.”

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Another comedian, John Clarke, creator of the satiric Kiwi character Fred Dagg, wrote a letter as a kid to the All Blacks’ Terry Lineen. The reply, with a signed autograph sheet of the All Blacks, made Clarke an All Blacks fan for life.

Stephen Fry, the English actor and director, is a rugby fanatic. Robin Williams was another showbiz personality who loved the All Blacks. Jonah Lomu made a special trip to Los Angeles to present him with an All Blacks jersey.

Former New Zealand rugby union player Jonah Lomu

(AFP PHOTO / FILES / LEON NEAL)

Williams’ riff on the experience was memorable: “It is so freakin’ brutal. I met Jonah Lomu. I never knew how huge he was. I felt a peasant in a Godzilla movie: ‘Quickly! Tell the other villagers, we go now!’ I realised that I could fall out of Jonah’s nose and he wouldn’t even know.”

The president of the Victorian Rugby Union, Bill Gillies, made a hobby of putting together a XV of famous former players. Not unexpectedly, his team has a distinct Australian orientation.

Props
Robbie Coltrane, star of the television series Cracker, played prop for Scotland Schoolboys, and Oliver Reed, a front-row stalwart of a London coarse rugby team, The Entertainers, and even more impressive propping up the bar after a match. If Reed failed to turn up, Sitiveni Rabuka, the kingmaker of Fijian politics, former prime minister and prop at Duntroon Military Academy, could be asked to play.

Hooker
Bill Hayden, Labor leader and governor-general of Australia.

Second row
Controversial cardinal George Pell of Sydney, a rugby player at Oxford using his AFL talents in the lineout. Patrick White, Australia’s Nobel Prize winner for literature and a cranky curmudgeon, played in the second row as a student at Cheltenham College.

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Breakaways
Richard Burton and Che Guevara.

Number eight
Sir William Deane, a judge of the Australian High Court and later governor-general, and a student at the famous rugby school, St Joseph’s Hunter Hill. Deane lost the sight of his right eye playing rugby at Sydney University.

Halfback
Rod Laver, a handy halfback – but better tennis player – who gave up rugby when he injured his left (and tennis-playing hand) in a game.

Five-eighth
Another handy tennis player, John Newcombe, who played for the Shore First XV.

Centres
Tony Blair, who was deemed the most improved player at Fettes School, Edinburgh. JRR Tolkien, a keen rugby player at Oxford.

Wingers
Jacques Rogge, a president of the International Olympic Committee, who represented Belgium in ten rugby Tests, and Jacques Tati, a better comedian than rugby player at Racing Club of Paris, where he played on the wing for the thirds.

Fullback
Spike Milligan.

Referees
Denis Thatcher, once a touch judge in a Test match, and Malachy McCourt, author of A Monk Swimming, who refereed rugby matches in New York.

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This is the Gillies team. But for the ultimate rugby team, we need to replace some of the personnel in it with some of the other names mentioned in this essay. But which players?

How To Play A Game Of Rugby by Spiro Zavos (Awa Press, 2004) Wellington, New Zealand.