The Art of Rugby Football

By Insider – Jock Phillips

Apologies to my readers for this long post.  Today I talk about no less than seven exhibitions of, or about, rugby; so there was a lot to say – too much.  And to women readers, don’t despair. There are other subjects coming your way apart from southern men and their strange pursuits.  You might even learn something from this…

Thomas Ellison (

In 1902 Tom Ellison, also known as Tamati Erihana, published The Art of Rugby Football, New Zealand’s, and I suspect the world’s, first serious coaching book on rugby. Tom Ellison was the son of Raniera Ellison, a Te Ati Awa from Taranaki who had come south to search for gold.  He found it spectacularly – 300 ounces in one day at ‘Maori Point’ on the Shotover.  Tom grew up  at the Kaik on on the Otago Peninsula, where his Kai Tahu cousins taught him rugby.  He was a member of the first New Zealand team to tour overseas, the natives tour of 1888/9 (107 matches in 54 weeks!), he captained the first official New Zealand team in 1893 and that year he was responsible for getting the NZ Rugby Football Union to adopt a black jersey with a silver fern as its colours. He thought of rugby as an art, but also a science. Partly though his influence, New Zealand became the first place where players had positions; and he invented the 2-3-2 scrum and the wing forward position which the All Blacks played for so long. He was also one of the first Māori barristers and threw his energies into Kai Tahu land claims.  He died tragically in his late 30s.

Tom Ellison features prominently in two Dunedin festival exhibitions, ‘Ruck it’ at the Hocken Library which is about Otago rugby; and the exhibition at the Sports Hall of Fame. What interests me is Ellison’s idea of the ‘art of rugby’.  By that I mean two things – first, at its best rugby is truly an art form, where people running unusual lines and passing at speed make the game almost a form of ballet.  I know this is derided as ‘razzle-dazzle’ by the purists; but that is the rugby which I love.  There is another side, as we shall see.

Second, there is the question of how artists and exhibition creators have interpreted rugby. The REAL New Zealand Festival invited the nation to respond creatively to the rugby world cup.  Some have responded by avoiding rugby and trying to tell the world that we are more than a people who like beating others up at the bottom of a scrum.  Others have chosen to explore rugby in art. If the example of Dunedin is any guide, how they have done so varies enormously.

The Hocken and Sports Hall of Fame exhibitions appeal primarily to rugby buffs.  The Sports Hall gives rugby prime focus – a whole room (a status only shared with athletics). Cricket gets a wall, and sports like netball, golf, rowing and soccer get only a cabinet. Because it is a hall of fame the focus is on great individuals – Ellison and Colin Meads get cabinets – and the presentation is largely traditional: old boots, blazers, photos, programmes.  There are no film clips.  The social dimensions of sport get no space.

The Hocken exhibition inhabits a similar field.  It trumpets Otago’s contributions especially to the coaching strategy of the game – Ellison yet again, and the two Cavanaghs, father and son, who really invented rucking in the 1940s.  The exhibition does remind us how important university rugby was until the 1970s.  Greg McGee, later a playwright, grins cheesily in the centre (he was captain) of one team photo.

A third rugby exhibition, ‘Hard on the Heels’, at Otago Museum takes us even closer to the heart of the beast.  The exhibition is of photos by Peter Bush, who for over sixty years, since 1949, has been racing up and down the sidelines to capture the great players in action. Most of the photos are of pitch action.  They would have been well-received at a time when only radio covered the matches live, but for those of us used to television close-ups the action shots pall.  It is the shots which the TV cameras don’t cover which are of interest. Peter Bush himself sees the exhibition as documenting the great age of amateur rugby, reflecting ‘a more simple time when men pulled on a club jersey to play a game they loved.’  But some of the images reveal a different view.  There is a photo of Keith Murdoch, a touring 1972 All Black, dejectedly being escorted to the airport for having beaten up a security guard.  He left for Australia and never returned home (and the story of Keith Murdoch features in another REAL New Zealand Festival event in Auckland – Finding Murdoch).  There is a photo of the Welsh hooker knocked out with his face in the mud (he actually had a broken jaw) in a test in 1969, while the All Black forwards try to look innocent in the background.  In his video commentary which accompanies the exhibition, Bush comments that it was quickly sorted out – there was ‘no namby-pamby’ in those days. ‘What a magnificent way to play it’.

Yvette Williams at Sports Hall of Fame

And there are some amazing photos of crowds in the epic 1956 Springbok tour. One is after the 4th test at Eden Park, where the largest crowd in New Zealand history had stormed the ground, many having slept there since the night before, and one fan has climbed almost to the top of the goalpost in celebration.  Another is of the crowd at the Wellington game – they are all men. Mostly wearing hats, they are smoking fags and the scoreboard has a sign ‘Time for a Capstan’. Bush documents the time when rugby was a man’s game, and hard men playing hard were the nation’s heroes.  To be fair, these exhibitions do not entirely ignore women.  In fact the most amazing exhibit at the Sports Hall of Fame is a mock-up version of the jumping pit when Yvette Williams broke the world long jump record at Gisborne in February 1954.  It is a truly huge distance.

Scott Eady and Allan Cox 'When I grow up'

Two other exhibitions, more aimed at art critics than rugby followers, take the argument further.  Downstairs at the Blue Oyster Gallery is a fine little exhibit called ‘Play Off’.  The printed catalogue is split red for girls – Art – and blue for boys – Rugby.  The part that captured me was a series by Scott Eady and Allan Cox, ‘When I grow up’. It shows perhaps a dozen portraits of 8 to 10 year olds.  They are all wearing full-size All Black jerseys and goalposts peer over their shoulders.  The boys wear the uniforms with pride and they look deliberately fierce in the photos.  Their arms are on their hips or at their sides.  The two girls look pensive, almost laughing, and one has pulled the jersey up to make a dress.  Her arms are across her chest. Scott Eady’s black pillars in the exhibition, designed to suggest that rugby once supported the weight of the nation, adds to the irony.

I then returned to the Dunedin Art Gallery to see their take on rugby, which is even more indirect.  ‘Black in black’ simply explores the colour black in New Zealand art. Inevitably of course our mate, Ralph Hotere is there once again; and one notes how many of the artists are, like Hotere, Māori from Ngapuhi or Taitokerau – Shane Cotton, Lisa Reihana, Rachael Rakena.  Many of the greats of New Zealand painting are represented – Colin McCahon‘s magnificent ’14 stations of the cross’; Len Lye‘s stark black and white films ‘free Radicals’ and ‘Particles in space; and works by Milan Mrkusich, and Julian Dashper.  It is surely not an illusion that black has indeed been a dominant tone for many of our artists  – was it existential despair, was it the example of McCahon, or was it subconsciously that dreaded black jersey.  I enjoyed the wit of Mary-Louise Browne’s progression of black granite tiles which moved letter by letter from white to black.  The last five words are: Blink, Blind, Bland, Blank, Black – enough said.

Nude rugby

For my penultimate take on rugby I went out to St Kilda to see another festival event – a nude game of rugby, which, perversely, given what is not hidden, is part of the ‘Hidden Dunedin celebration. Well, in all honesty I cannot say that the game is improved when nothing is hidden.  And it did not do much for their game – the Nude Blacks lost 20-25.  I had hoped that the game might suggest a further questioning of the game – and it is true that there were several women playing.  But I suspected when I saw the numbers of cans of beer being consumed on the sidelines that it was more a case of guffawing bloke culture than any revolt against it.

I completed my day of footie at the new indoor stadium watching England play Argentina. The stadium was spectacular, but the game was sadly deficient.  If you were looking for the ‘art of rugby’, then yesterday the museums and galleries had it all over the antics on the pitches!


About REAL New Zealand Festival

The REAL New Zealand Festival will celebrate all things New Zealand during Rugby World Cup 2011 – from 9 September to 24 October.
This entry was posted in Arts, Culture & Heritage, Exhibitions, Insider - Jock Phillips, Nature & Outdoors, On & off the field, Roadtrip, Rugby, Sports. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Art of Rugby Football

  1. Pingback: Cold War | REAL New Zealand Festival Insider

  2. Pingback: Māori footie hero number three | REAL New Zealand Festival Insider

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