Rugby heroes, rugby villains

By Insider – Jock Phillips

Put together a case of old jerseys, cups, programmes and tickets; throw in a couple of panels about heroes of the past; add a scrummaging or a kicking-a-goal interactive; find a catchy title (usually involving the colour black) – and you have your Rugby World Cup 2011 exhibition. I have seen half a dozen such exhibitions over the last month; and on my way north yesterday I saw another, ‘Khaki and Black‘, at the Waiouru Army Museum.

It followed the standard formula.  The labels were a bit wordy, there were a couple of surprising errors (surely every rugby fan knows that the famous 1956 series against the ‘Boks was four tests not three) and one of the interactives was not working.  What saved the exhibition for me was some unusual objects, especially a fabulous 19th-century woollen rugby jersey, and the well-researched story which it told. ‘Khaki and Black’ explores the interaction of rugby and war.

I have already quoted in an earlier post Tom Ellison‘s famous phrase that rugby was ‘a soldier-making game’; but he was simply picking up the point made by the Duke of Wellington: ‘The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.’  Rugby became popular in schools in New Zealand at the turn of the 20th century at the very time that military training was introduced.  Rugby was seen as developing men physically, encouraging teamwork and courage, and promoting strategy and tactics – all valuable on the battlefield.

When the 1905 All Blacks went to Britain and swept all before them (forgetting for a moment that dubious loss to Wales!), commentators in Britain saw their success in the light of the relative failures of British forces in the South African War.  Many British recruits for the war had been rejected as physically incapable and a parliamentary investigation into the ‘degeneracy of the race’ followed.  In that context, the All Blacks were interpreted by the British as the salvation of the Anglo-Saxons.  The New Zealanders had ‘done well’ in the South African War.  Now the All Blacks’ success suggested that, while the British were becoming soft as a result of their urban lifestyle, New Zealand was producing men toughened on the colonial frontier who could fight effectively in future wars. The All Blacks gave New Zealand men a special role as the territorials of the Empire.  This was how, and why, rugby football became so bound into New Zealand national identity.

‘Khaki and Black’ follows this close relationship of rugby and war.  The exhibition highlights particular heroes – W. J. Hardham, rugby player, who won the Victoria Cross in South Africa and whose name is commemorated by the Hardham Cup played for in Wellington club rugby; Dave Gallaher, who served in South Africa, captained the 1905 All Blacks, and then died on the Western Front.

It also shows effectively how rugby was used during New Zealand’s wars to strengthen physical and team skills while also providing merciful relief from more deadly conflicts.  In the First World War, while Ranfurly Shield and club competitions at home were suspended (from fear that holding them might discourage recruitment), competitions were set up between company teams for battalion honours, between provincial teams for brigade honours, and between the allied servicemen for the ‘King’s Cup’, which is claimed to be the real predecessor to the World Cup. In the Second World War General Freyberg was so enthusiastic about rugby as training for war that he donated a cup for competition between units.  Following the end of the war he helped create the famous ‘Kiwis’ team, which toured the UK and France to huge applause. Freyberg instructed the team ‘to play bright open football with the winning of the game the least important factor.’  They did so, although in the process they also won 29 of the 33 games they played.

So rugby and war have a long and rich history well told in this exhibition.  But the exhibition raises a couple of questions.  One is, if rugby is surrogate war, how do you teach the distinction between maiming, even killing the enemy,  and playing rugby in a  clean sportsmanlike fashion? This is a hard distinction to draw, and New Zealand rugby has always been bedevilled by allegations, especially coming from the English, that we play ‘dirty’.  Dave Gallaher himself, a wing forward, was continually accused of cheating because his position was not known in the UK.  In the 1925 Invicibles tour Cyril Brownlie was sent off for dirty play in the test against England; and in 1967 Colin Meads was also given his marching orders in the test against Scotland. To encourage competitive physical battles but not violence has always been a tricky issue.

The second question is, why did rugby continue to be so central to New Zealand identity long after fighting for the Empire had lost its importance?  In my view this happened because the mass media established so strongly the link between rugby and being a New Zealander that traditions were set up that had their own momentum.  At the turn of the century it was the telegraph and the newspaper which were the agencies of communication.  From the late 1920s radio coverage of games became crucial.  From the late 1960s television has been the pre-eminent sustainer of the mythology of the ABs.

Both of these issues – rugby as incipient violence, and the role of the media – are wonderfully explored in a play, ‘Finding Murdoch‘, which is on at QTheatre in Auckland as part of the REAL New Zealand Festival. The play explores a famous incident on the 1972 All Black tour of the UK. In the game against Wales the huge Otago prop Keith Murdoch scored the All Blacks only (and winning) try.  That night he was involved in a fight at the (ironically named) Angel Hotel.  Two days later he was sent home from the team by the manager Ernie Todd.  He never made it home, but disappeared into outback Australia.

The play follows the actual quest by Margot McRae, who wrote the play, to track down Murdoch and tell his story. It explores the culture of violence that has always been part of rugby.  As the All Blacks go out onto Cardiff Arms Park with the miners from the Welsh valleys roaring and singing, the experience is described several times as ‘preparing for battle’.  The battle itself is full of illicit punches and violence – ‘a bit of niggle’ is the expression, although that seems a slight underestimation: one All Black was knocked out cold.  That night in the pub the insults and accusations of cheating and dirty play kept flowing from Welsh supporters.  It became too much for a drunk Keith Murdoch, who was already notorious for acts such as throwing furniture from hotel windows.  This time he threw a punch.  In traditional Kiwi male style, Murdoch refused to talk afterwards and kept his feelings to himself.

The play explores the Kiwi male psyche effectively, and exposes the drive for sensationalism and high ratings which came to dominate television by the 1990s when McRae’s hunt takes place.  The interchange between the television producer, the crusty rugby reporter, and the young woman news hound is fascinating.  McRae discovers that the manager Ernie Todd was suffering from cancer throughout the tour, and when she finally tracks down Murdoch in a Queensland pub it becomes clear that he was really fleeing from the media circus that All Black rugby had become.

Rugby is no longer thought of as a soldier-making game, but in a week when we have seen endless televised replays of the Welsh captain doing a spear tackle and then being sent off, the issues raised by both ‘Khaki and Black’ and ‘Finding Murdoch’ remain pertinent. Whether rugby is surrogate war, or just prime time entertainment, it has always been much more than a game.

During the REAL New Zealand Festival, which runs alongside Rugby World Cup 2011, our Jock is roaming the country and blogging about it for the REAL New Zealand Festival Insider blog…


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, Rugby, Theatre. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Rugby heroes, rugby villains

  1. chris Maclean says:

    Very interesting and perceptive, Jock, thank you. Good to see history back on the field.

  2. Geoff Norman says:

    “Keith Murdoch, who was already notorious for acts such as throwing furniture from hotel windows.”
    Brings to mind another Keith M.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s