518. The Long Sunday Read: Ned Davy and the Union of Rugby

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As you know, Ned believes that most things are better seen through the prism of sport, because sport is embodied cuture, a complex discourse on issues of ethics, aesthetics, identity and economics, and so on. Also, it’s fun.

So watching from afar the European Referendum in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (and just remember that the UK is itself a union of two monarchies, a principality and a territory with a consocitional devolved legislature within a unitary constitutional monarchy), I found the easiest way was, quel surprise to borrow a bit of ironic Gallic flair, through rugby.

And in particular, Super Rugby.

As you will know, Super Rugby started in 1992 in the amateur era with 6 teams from New Zealand, Australia and Fiji.

Now it is 18 teams from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Argentina and Japan.

The reason for that numeric and geographic expansion is, in its simplest form, economic: globalisation and professionalism have a logic of increasing the supply of the product to a bigger audience.

The downside of that process is that the form and structure of the previous era is left behind.  Back in the day, when the shops were closed on the weekend and the All Blacks played overseas only every few years, participatory sport was the dominant organised leisure activity.  It was how we came together as communities: as players, coaches, spectators, administrators. And it was (largely) unpaid.

Underlying the economic reason for the transformation is something else: technology.

Airplanes mean that it is feasible for rugby teams to pop across oceans and continents for just one match.

Satellite television means that it is possible to show all those games, and generate a decent revenue stream from them.

So while we might hanker for the simpler form of life and work and social relationships of the previous era, we also love the expanded choices provided by the very technology that displaced it. (And we shouldn’t forget that that simpler era was not all tea and crumpets: lower life expectancy, fewer opportunities, social and legal inequalities, etc.)

The real point is that the big governance challenge in such transformation is inclusion. How do you make it work for everyone, or at least mainly everyone, and certainly for more as time goes on?

The great thing about rugby turning professional in 1995 was that the New Zealand Rugby authorities grabbed hold of the problem/opportunity rather than, as very nearly happened, giving it over to the narrow commercial interests of privately-owned media globsters.

And NZR has, however imperfectly, tried to arrange things so that the net revenue of the professional game is used to support the grassroots amateur game. The heirarchy is clear: profits flow from the elite tier to provinces and clubs and schools. Not enough, and it’s not all unalloyed joy, but at least the flow direction is right.

By contrast, a lot of British people felt that the economic and social changes of the last 40 years had gone the other way.  So even though they might enjoy many aspects of the technology, economic and political transformation, they felt that much of it had passed them by personally.

A lot of that is perception of relative status, but perception matters. Global rugby is much better and more interesting now than 30 years ago, but would we be quite so happy about that if the Welsh had just beaten us 0-3 at home?

Some random observations:

  • The Remain campaign was dreadful from start to finish, right down to their choice of colour (puce yellow). By adopting the narrow calculus of a parliamentary campaign (50% + 1), they started off by surrendering the high ground, before proceeding to throw enough mud to cover everyone in distaste.
  • Jeremy Corbyn’s desire for the perfect rather than the merely better, made him ineffective in persuading Labour voters to see the wood for the trees.
  • The Tory party’s decades long civil war over Europe is proceeding like most civil wars: plenty of dead and injured lying in a wasteland.
  • The Leave campaign made disgraceful promises that simply cannot be delivered. The anger over the next few years as that becomes apparent will be fearful to behold.
  • The biggest irony is that Mr Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has likely ended the United Kingdom. Scotland will surely now choose to stay with Europe rather than England. The Northern Irish may – may – decide that they can now see more commonality with their cousins in the south than their cousins across the Sea. And of course don’t forget that Cornwall has its own independence movement. (Okay it’s a couple of people in a pub having a pint and a pasty, but it’s a start.)

For me, I draw on two pieces from the past. The first is the image from May 1945 of Princess Elizabeth standing on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to share in the VE Day celebrations. Sixty-eight years later she must look out across her realm and wonder ‘What the hell was all that about, then?”

The second is that nervously admiring line in Voltaire’s 18th-century classic Candide about how the Royal Navy executed insufficiently aggressive admirals pour encourager les autres.  I think the Brits (or rather the Engish) are about to find out how the continental Europeans will deal with Brexiters in order to discourager les autres.

 

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517. Dunedin Is Hot

The good news for the happy rugby crowds in Dunedin today is that it’s a beautiful early summer’s day. Sunny, warm for this far south, with just a hint of a northerly breeze.

The bad news for the skiers is that it’s a beautiful early summer’s day. And the sad news for Dunedin ratepayers is that you didn’t really need to pay for that flash roof on the stadium for tonight’s match. Especially when said roof gets blasted off by the crowd cheering when Sopoaga and Squire and Naholo get subbed on.

The worst news for Ned is that the backpackers didn’t have my reservation, and there’s not a spare bed closer than Balclutha. Ah well, I can always proper myself up at the bar to watch the late games of Australia-England and South Africa-Ireland, and follow that up with a chaser of Euro 2016. I might even cheer for Wales in their match against Northern Ireland, unless Warren Gatland has spoiled my evening.

In which case I’ll be sobbing quietly while huddling on my park bench.

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516. Ned’s Invited To A Party At Tony Brown’s House

I’m heading south tomorrow for the big shindig in Dunedin. And LittleDavyOne is taking a break from Typing and Tapestry studies at Balclutha Polytechnic to join me.

So it could be a famously disreputable weekend which we will never discuss with MrsDavy, or it could be a memory that we never ever discuss with anyone.

Because Shag’s gone all refresh on us, and named a bunch of newbies for the 3rd test against the Welsh.

Now, I’m willing to cut the Shagster a bit of slack. He’s nearly earned it. But but but.

George Moala starting at centre is some sort of admission that the midfield experiment hasn’t done the business, so let’s parachute in a maybe possible hopeful Hail Mary hero. But what if the problem wasn’t Fekitoa or Tamanivalu, but Crotty on the inside?

Jerome Kaino drops right out of the match day 23 for Elliot Dixon to start and Liam Squire   on the bench. (Squire maybe deserves his place just to show off the full mullet to the fancy pantsy haircuts brigade.) Personally, I would have liked to see Ardie Savea start in place of Sam Cane to see if we could control the breakdown some time earlier than the 60th minute.

Good to see the hooker bench duties go to Codie Taylor, so that we’re strengthening the depth behind Dane Coles. There’s not a lot to separate him and Nathan Harris, so keep them both keen.

Look, I know that we’ve got look ahead to Australia and South Africa, but the whole balance of the team makes it look a bit like a trial game. Trying a few things because it doesn’t really really matter.

Bloody oath it does. Just ask Warren Gatland.

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515. I’ve been thinking about Michael Cheika

After sitting next to a very nice Welshman at Westpac Stadium on Saturday night (he seemed a bit annoyed with a mate who had convinced him that Warren Gatland had a masterplan to sneak a famous victory against the All Blacks, and they should add a bit extra to the mortgage to be down here for the famous moment), I toddled off to the pub to watch the Poms give the Aussies a lesson in humility.

Well, not really. I don’t think the Aussies will ever be paying attention in the Humility 101 course, and I’m not sure an English rugby type would be the lecturer anyway.

Unlike the All Blacks – Wales match, which never rose to any great heights, the Aussie-England match was full of drama and tension. And a most telling thing was that the pub goers, most of whom were fairly well gone by this stage, were unanimously cheering for the Poms.

How long since our hearts have made such a choice?

And I would have a bet that a key reason Australia has become the team at the bottom of our cheering list is a certain Mr Michael Cheika, the Wallabies coach.

He is a loud-mouthed, tanty-throwing, growling boor with a bad barber.

And I have a theory about Mr Cheika. He is not really an Australian. He is an Englishman. Which is to say, that he coaches rugby as if he was an Englishman.

He’s about boof. He thinks it’s all about physical dominance, around the fringes of legal if necessary. He thinks that mere possession and territory will lead to victory. Smash, bash and dominate.

He has a sense of entitlement, nowhere better exhibited than when referee calls go against his team. The camera on the coaches box shows him throw his pen down, his hands up, expletives expleted, stomps and steams.

Be disappointed. Disagree by all means. But you’re the coach, not the fan, and if you can’t keep your cool then you’re absolutely no use to your players. All you’re doing is telling them that there is nothing to be done because the world itself is against you. Grab hold of that grievance and hug it to your breast, and use it as whispers late at night while you sob into your pillow, because you’re never going to win.

The irony is that at the same time as the Aussies have ‘Pommy’ Cheika, the Poms have hired an Aussie coach so they can learn to play like a Southern Hemisphere team. Eddie Jones’ team survived on scraps and turned them into points by clinical execution of the merest of opportunities. Sounds like the All Blacks’ game plan: wait, wait and pounce.

The result is that after the weekend the latest World Rugby rankings have the All Blacks on top, but England go to 2nd, and the Aussies drop two places to 4th.

 

But the biggest and best news in the rankings announcement by World Rugby is that Guyana have leapt nine places:

For Guyana and the Cayman Islands the dream of appearing at Japan 2019 is still alive following their respective victories in the Rugby Americas North Championship, which forms part of the regional Rugby World Cup 2019 qualification process.

Saturday’s 23-18 win over south zone rivals and defending champions Trinidad and Tobago means Guyana will contest the final, where they will play either Mexico or Caymans Islands, who face off for top spot in the north zone on 2 July.  The Caymans maintained their interest with a 47-11 victory against Bermuda, outside centre Mike Wilson and winger Venasio Tokatokavanna grabbing a brace of tries apiece.

Both Guyana and the Cayman Islands enjoyed healthy rises to their rankings, with the Guyanese moving up nine places from 55th to an all-time high of 46th and the Caymans up three – climbing above Sweden, Luxembourg and Singapore – to 58th, on the back of a 0.59 rating point rise. Trinidad and Tobago and Bermuda both count the costs of defeats, falling to 48th and 71st respectively.

Aussie down two to 4th, Guyana up nine to 46th. Look out Cheika, at this rate they’ll be over taking you this time next year.

Or you could give up the boof and embrace the beauty.

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514. Florida

The news from Florida this morning is outrageous and contemptuous. Sadly, what it is not is new news. Homophobia and American gun massacres are part of our landscape.

One way – just one of them, not the most important, but also maybe not the least – is to see sport as a high profile, wide reach opportunity that demonstrates the alternative to exclusion, isolation, hate and fear.

Back in May 2011 I wrote at Road to Redemption about the Bingham Cup, its origins and its importance:

Regular readers will know that my core schtick is that sport is fascinating and important because it is embodied culture: that it brings to life ethics and aesthetics in a way beyond mere words.  Therefore, it matters.  A lot.

Therefore, also, how we have thought about and practiced sport in the past is a window into observing how our culture has evolved, often through a tense dialectic.  To read old rugby stories in 2011 is to keep tripping over those deep deep assumptions about ‘race’ and sexuality and alcohol and violence that the writers of the times only dimly glimpsed themselves.

(And it should be enough, too, to inject some humility into considering how my own ‘enlightened’ ideas might be perceived in, say, 2051.)

Regular readers will also know that I think professionalism has been generally positive for sport in general, and rugby in particular.  And one of the ways it helps is that a professional sport will not survive economically if it puts up with crap on or off the field.  The audiences and advertisers will flee.

And now, belatedly, male professional sports are inching towards addressing their attitudes towards homosexuality.  (Female sports were forced to deal with it back when Martina Navratilova chose to treat it like one of her forehand cross-court winners: the big Don’t Argue.  They didn’t.  We don’t.  And now, who cares?) 

One of the bigger stories in US sport last week was that the San Francisco Giants baseball team will make a video for the It Gets Better campaign supporting LGBT youth against harassment and bullying.

Way back in 1995 Ian Roberts was the first Aussie rugby league star to come out publicly, but proper rugby seems to be a bit slow.  Gareth Thomas, a former Welsh rugby captain, came out in 2009, and straight Ben Cohen, a current England player, overtly plays up to his numerous gay fans.

There is a gay rugby ‘world cup’ played every two years, and not only has New Zealand never won it, we’ve never even entered a team.  It’s called the Bingham Cup, named after Mark Bingham, a UC Berkeley rugby star, who went on to co-found a New York rugby team.  He was one of the group of passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 on 11 September 2001 who decided to fight back against the hijackers.

By contrast, all bloody William Webb Ellis Trophy did was pick up a ball.

So ups to New Zealand Rugby, New Zealand Football, New Zealand Cricket, New Zealand Rugby League, Netball New Zealand and Hockey New Zealand which last month announced a combined effort to improve diversity and inclusion within sport.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

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513. Weekend Rugby Wrap

All Blacks 39 – 21 Wales

Wallabies 28 – 39 England

South Africa 20 – 26 Ireland

By hokey, isn’t it good to have international footy back on?

And, away from the singularity of a World Cup, we’re back to a more pure sort of pleasure. It’s the game in front of you that matters, just the 80 minutes rather than a whole four years.

The ABs did what we expect: rusty in their first outing of the season, but imposing order in the final quarter. Once again the most important factor was not on the field. Shag was up in the coaches’ box looking like he’d just eaten some dodgy chicken. His substitution decisions are becoming the defining moments of test matches. Hooking an out of sorts Julian Savea for Beauden Barrett in just the second minute of the second half was brutal inspiration.

Injecting extra muscle in the form of Ardie Savea and Patrick Tuipolotu got us crucial extra yards of go forward. And running the youngsters on at the end is money in the bank for future matches.

The bad news for a Welsh team that played with courage and skill and ambition and flashes of panache is that the ABs will get much better over the next two weeks. Can they find some extra, too?

The Aussie-England match in Brisbane was an excellent test match: an arm wrestle, a seesaw, a match of moments. The first ten minutes you thought the Aussies would run away, but the Poms built themselves back into it. This was my first look at Maro Itoje, the young English lock, and he’s going to be a sensation. If you like the look of SBW’s physique, you’re going to love Itoje: 6′ 5″ of nothing but rippling muscle, great in the air, athletic around the park, beautiful ball skills. I’m looking forward to a Retallick-Itoje match up.

Best sight of the night: Cheika. ‘Nuff said.

Ireland achieved a famous victory in South Africa (their first ever in the Republic), and did it the hard way: with 14 men for three-quarters of the match (and at one stage being down to 13.)

Not the greatest spectacle, perhaps, but another panel in the argument that it’s the coach that matters the most. Joe Schmidt has rebuilt his team after an injury plagued World Cup. And the Jaapies have just chosen a bloke that doesn’t look the goods.

Good news for the officials for Saturday’s second test in Wellington: Ned’s got a ticket, so there’ll be plenty of excellent advice coming from the stands.

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512. Five things that could go wrong tonight

Yes, yes, yes. The All Blacks are favourites to win tonight.

The TAB has them at $1.07, with Wales at $7.50, and the winning margin split at 17.5 points.  We play the game not to see how clever the bookies are, but rather to let the players decide the future for themselves. Just ask Leicester City.

There are five ways I reckon it could go pear-shaped for the All Blacks tonight.

Combinations

One of the reasons, I think, that the All Blacks start the year badly is that they come together from different franchises who have their own ways of doing things. It just takes time to replace those patterns with new ones, and to absorb the subtleties of the players around you.

Just think about how the backline has to move:

Highlander (Smith) to Chiefs (Cruden) to Highlander (Fekitoa) to Crusader (Crotty) to Hurricane (Savea) or Highlander (Smith or Naholo).

The combos potentially get worse in the second half when Shag goes to the bench. During the World Cup the bench added immensely to breaking open the opposition, but that was after an intense period of training together.

That’s why I reckon Shag will be keeping it very simple tonight.

Decisions Decisions

If there’s going to be any grit in the gearbox it could be the tiniest bit of uncertainty about who’s in charge and who I’m following and where I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to doing at any particular moment.

The great thing about McCaw’s period as captaincy was how it evolved over the years into an unthinkingness within the team when they were in tight spots. Think about how they closed out the game against Ireland in 2013.

I have no doubt that Read has the ability and the temperament to grow into the role. But what he needs is games under the belt. That starts tonight.

There’s plenty of other leadership experience around the park: Coles, Cane and Smith are captains of their franchises. But the smooth flow of decision-making is going to be one of the fascinating tests tonight.

Brain Farts

Thank goodness that thuggery has been (nearly) eliminated from the game. But, as we’ve seen in the Super Rugby comp, players can get their timing or entrance or technique wrong in a way that gets a yellow or red card. And deservedly so, because rugby is not tiddly winks and players need the protection of the rules if they’re going to do what they do at a zillion miles an hour.

Brain farts can happen in the 1st minute or the 79th minute. And new All Blacks are more vulnerable because their blood pressure is up and there may be too many voices in their head.

The Officials

I think we can probably all agree to get past the fact that Wayne Barnes was in Cardiff on 6 October 2007, and just let him get on with the business tonight. I’m not so worried about him as George Ayoub who will be doing the dozing in the TMO box. When they wake him up for a look-see he’s likely to get the channel wrong, and then require 57 replays of the wrong angle before making an incomprehensible decision.

Oh, and who’s this Aussie bloke Will Houston who’ll be running the touch? If it looks like Michael Cheika in drag, we’re in trouble.

The Welsh

Oh, the other side might have something to do with it?

The boyos may just play the game of their lives tonight. Everything might click, and they’ll take the points from every little gasp of a possibility. A loose ball, a wayward kick, an intercept: if they take the chances offered by an out of sorts All Blacks, they can definitely come out ahead.

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511. All Backs 19 – 0 Wales

Now this one is from 31 May 1969: the first test, played at Lancaster Park.

And it’s worth remembering for a few things, starting with some names that will generate a frisson of excitement for kiwis of a certain age. For the All Blacks: Gray, Meads, Kirkpatrick, Lochore, Going, McCormick. For Wales: the combo of Gareth Edwards and Barry John in the halves, and JPR Williams at fullback. (Okay, let’s not get into the Bridgend thing, people.) And a fair stack of Davies, Williams, Lloyds and Thomas’s to round things out.

Next thing worth remembering: this was the first test Wales played in New Zealand. Sure, their boyos had come as part of Anglo-Welsh and British Lions teams before, but this was their first time in their own right.

Final thing worth remembering: this was the seventh test played between New Zealand and Wales, and it would become the first time in 64 years of trying that the All Blacks would go ahead in the overall standings. So chew on that while you’re wondering what a 63-year losing streak feels like.

  • 1905 Wales won
  • 1924 All Blacks won
  • 1935 Wales won
  • 1953 Wales won (blimey, that’s 3-1 to the leek eaters at this point, which is why a lot of people put them up there with the Boks as the Most Dreaded Opponent.)
  • 1963 All Blacks won
  • 1967 All Blacks won

For the record, the All Blacks won with 4 tries (Dick, McLeod, Lochore, Gray) and McCormick kicking 2 conversions and a penalty. And the crowd of 55,000 people didn’t need fancy seats or lattes to enjoy it (weather showery, ground muddy).

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510. The Replacements

It is not fair to compare the newish players stepping into the shoes of Woodcock, McCaw, Carter, Nonu and Smith, as selected by Shag for the first test against the Welsh

So that is what I will now do, because test footy is not about fairness. It is an examination of character.

Sam Cane for McCaw is a fair swap in terms of qualities as an open side flanker. (Of course, McCaw was worth a great deal more for his leadership, with or without a broken foot.) Cane will go well after a fairly lengthy apprenticeship from about the age of 11, but he has to produce the full goods with Ardie Savea now breathing down his neck. Remember how many very fine flankers that McCaw saw off in his tenure: but that was exceptional not normal.

Cruden is not even slightly newish, having covered first five with great flair during Dan Carter’s many injury lapses. But again, he is under real pressure from Sopoaga to really seriously own the jersey. Barrett is not the threat for ten, because he is simply too good an option off the bench. (And his goal kicking is not nearly good enough.) Maybe that’s a tough gig for Barrett but, hey, he got to score the nail in the coffin try in a Rugby World Cup final, and that’s not too shabby on the CV.

Tough to say it about Cruden who has done incredibly well to come back from an awful injury, but my guess is that Lima is the long-term option.

Fekitoa and Crotty for Nonu and Smith is the big question mark, and it won’t be answered for three or more years, because great midfield backs are like tasty cheese. It just takes time and patience to develop the skills and vision and naughtiness that can see the sliver of a possibility, to shimmy and shake and break it into a probability for people outside you. These are the real chess players of the game, having to think ten moves ahead, and moving the opposition into positions of weakness. Yes, strength and speed and skill matter, but gumption and sneak matter more.

Which leaves us with a maybe Woodcock replacement. Joe Moody has got ticker, and he’s a big lad, and mobile when he wants. But the great thing about Woodcock was his ability to get up for the big games. He could be fair to middling for the Blues one week, and then absolutely dominant for the Blacks the next. The question for Moody, and any other prop aspirants, is whether they can find their fifth gear.

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509. Wales 13 – 8 All Blacks

Okay, so it was 19 December 1953, but it’s worth remembering if only because the boyos remember it.

It was at the Cardiff Arms Park – the real one, not the hootsie-tootsie Millennium Stadium built next door.

The Welsh team included six players from the Cardiff team which had beaten the mid-week All Blacks earlier in the tour, although my favourite club colours would be the hooker D.M. Davies who played for Somerset Police. At fly-half was the incomparable Cliff Morgan, who went on to a very successful career of post-dinner speeches and media appearances about how he beat the All Blacks.

The All Blacks were a strong, solid side, with plenty of names that would carry through the fifties and into the sixties: Tiny White, Ron Jarden, Ian Clarke, Kevin Skinner, Bob Scott and Bob Stuart. Making his test debut was Brian Fitzpatrick, father of Sean.

If you watch the footage of the time you’ll see that it was a beautiful day, a lovely ground (although that grass looks awfully long compared to modern pitches). And there was plenty of running and passing of the big fat ball. But the ref looks totally out of puff (shades of 1905).

New Zealand led 8-5 at halftime thanks to a try by Clark the flanker, and a conversion and penalty by Jarden (to a try by the Welsh flanker Judd, conversion by Rowlands). And even though the ABs attacked vigorously after halftime, they could not add to their score. Instead Rowlands kicked a penalty at 72 minutes, and then winger Ken Jones outpaced Jarden to re-gather a cross kick and score next to the posts. Rowland converted.

The All Blacks went on to win tests against Ireland, England and Scotland, but not by much, and then lost to France 0-3 in the last match of the tour in Paris, more than two months after the Cardiff test! (And the Welsh were still in the pub celebrating, I am sure.)

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