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


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.


About Ned Davy

By hokey, the big fella’s tipped into his 50s. A rangy loose forward in his prime, good with the ball in hand, but rarely up with the play any more.
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