In the late eighties I was a football player, as a young man of a solid build in a small town I was in demand as someone who could catch, pass, run, and tackle. There was no genius to this, nor much skill. I was large, competent, and looking for things to do on the weekends. As a result I played both rugby codes, union on Saturdays and League on Sundays, fitting into the second row for the most part and occasionally going up front and up the middle. Later I was injured and stopped playing. Then I moved away, I found other things to do on weekends, what’s more they didn’t require me on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights to run around in the dark and dew.
I remained fond of the games, watching the Winfield Cup every week and the Union tests. I recall staying up late, very late, and watching the 1991 World Cup in the UK live on the ABC, snuggled up on the big brown sofa in my parents’ house with Jim Maxwell , a doona and many dozen cups of milo. The pass from David Campese to Tim Horan still causes my jaw to drop, bombshell style. Marty Roebuck still has my porno name. Nick Farr Jones is the kind of bloke who objects to bike lanes but he took those tackles from Michael Jones and didn’t shirk. Similarly it is pretty hard to like Simon Poidevin and his stockbroker belt politics. But then just the thought Willie Ofahenguae makes me smile.
I loved rugby in its amateur form, the sheer blokey heroism of those extraordinary athletes running about for nothing, for pride and solidarity. This especially appealed to me when the rugby minnows were playing. I truly adored the fact that those little guys from Romania or Canada got the same reward as Michael Lynagh or Sean Fitzpatrick or Jerry Guscott. Even more than that, they got the same remuneration as the rest of us when we ran onto the field, none at all. Well that was never true, not really, I’m sure lots of players got free meals at the clubhouse and a car lease from the club secretary and maybe a cheap flat near the beach organized through the employer of the assistant coach. I’m sure the playing field was never particularly level (what a false horizon that is, whenever I hear it I know someone is being shat on) but it wasn’t money that made the difference to the team or the game, it wasn’t the size of the corporation that mattered either. I found that terribly admirable, not to mention endearing.
When rugby went professional I clocked off, I stopped watching and stopped caring. I couldn’t admire them as professionals as much as I had when they were amateurs. I admit that the lustre of amateurism is mostly a façade for gentlemanly pursuits, a cover for leisurely wealth and privilege but by the late eighties the sheer anachronousness of rugby’s amatuerism was itself charming, a pastiche of boys playing the Eton wall game. The unconvincing nature of this imitation was not out of line with the incongruousness of bulky Islander blokes playing something like that wall game. Professionalism, however, did away with that. Professionalism made it about the money and the organization (how can Waratahs be blue?).
The sport we watch on television is all about money and organization, I know, but for a time rugby union gave the impression it wasn’t and the novelty counted for something. Without the novelty I gave my football attention, and loyalty, to league and have said a good many rude, nasty things about the Wallabies over the past years (which, for reasons of decorum, I won’t repeat here) as well as the Super Ten Twelve Fourteen Fifteen Sixteen which has struck me as possibly the most boring sporting competition in existence, and that includes the President’s Cup Golf.
The only reason I give rugby union any thought at all, any positive thought, is because whatever the context the All Blacks remain steadfastly admirable. Somehow their very dominance (and its continuity in both amateur and professional eras) implies that in New Zealand all professionalism has meant is that the players get paid now. It means more than this, I know, but watching the soap opera that the Wallabies play out every season I can’t help but feel that the All Blacks aren’t worried about world domination, they already have it: they are the best and they know it.
That confidence, that muscular lather of shared and mutual belief in each other, appeared to me to be the very sigil of the All Blacks (and to be unrelated to the big headedness which is such a factor in Australian Rugby) and as an emblem it has drawn me as near to rugby fandom as I am likely to come. The fact that All Black captain and all round superhero Richie McCaw has been immortalised in toast, and that New Zealanders find this fitting and comforting, is testimony to the virtues to be found in All Black rugby.
This weekend, having dipped in and out of the Rugby World Cup so far, I’ll be tuning in to watch the All Blacks play the Wallabies and have no doubt, I’ll be supporting the All Blacks because there is absolutely no way an Australian footballer could look at himself in the mirror if his portrait was made up of fried bread, and as such I will be supporting the team that loves itself well, and with a smile.