The political left has a problem with rugby in New Zealand, and various leftwing bloggers often outline some of the more negative history and culture associated with the game. Much of this seems somewhat out-dated and puritanical. So here are some brief thoughts about how rugby in 2015 is a very different beast to that of, say, 1981.
- There are many aspects of the game that the left should find easy to embrace: the emphasis on the collective team effort over individual achievement (despite corporate pressure to single out stars), the massive number of non-commercial and community based democratic organisations most rugby players belong to, and the spirit of solidarity team and club activities engender.
- The reality is that a huge section of working class New Zealanders love rugby. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Indeed, an enormous number of New Zealanders are stuck in jobs that have very limited creative potential, and rugby provides a joy outside of often menial employment. They ‘work to live’ rather than ‘live to work’. It is their family and what they do at the weekend where they find freedom and expression.
- Many of the reasons given for taking an oppositional stance to rugby are either no longer relevant or rapidly being eliminated from the game. At the 1995 Rugby World Cup Nelson Mandela turned the image of rugby on its head overnight. Rugby went from being seen as a supporter of apartheid to being a powerful force for a post apartheid South Africa.
- Similarly, anyone who watched rugby even a decade ago is in no doubt these days that there has been a culture shift. Violent behaviour, even of the accidental kind, is not tolerated. We have seen talented players left out of teams explicitly because of their excessive drinking and players convicted and publicly condemned for alcohol fuelled anti-social behaviour. Players are routinely flown home to attend to important family matters. The message from the top is that there are things more important than rugby.
- While winning the Rugby World Cup three times is impressive, New Zealand’s womens’ rugby team has, of course, already won it four times. It will be the women’s team who will have the first (and arguably best) opportunity to win an Olympic gold medal in rugby for New Zealand and the massive growth of sevens and touch rugby has seen a huge increase in girls and women playing rugby over the past decade. Male dominance of rugby is being challenged on the ground and women’s achievements in the support should be recognised in the media and in official roles.
- Rugby is seen by many on the left as a distraction from the “real issues”. But does being a rugby fan really render you unable to critically evaluate the world around you in a way that attending jazz and film festivals, renovating an old villa or walking the Heaphy track doesn’t?