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Win an evening out with rugby legends,” boomed a weekly magazine cover this month, complete with a picture of England’s World Cup-winning captain Martin Johnson, writes Huw Richards. Nothing to occasion much notice in any rugby-playing country. Except this was a women’s magazine.

This sort of coverage, particular to New Zealand, led Alastair Campbell, the former spin doctor to British prime minister Tony Blair, to suggest the country’s people were rugby-obsessed. Campbell is using his PR skills to support the British and Irish Lions, who play New Zealand’s All Blacks in the first of three Tests in Christchurch on Saturday. But obsessive or not, few nations take kindly to flip analysis from former colonial masters. And what seems obsessive to the first-time visitor is actually, by historic standards, restraint. Publicity for the Tests may draw on second world war slogans, but the mock posters have an ironic, mildly self-mocking air.

Contrast this with 1956, when the South African team visited amid an atmosphere, compared by sober commentators with recent experience of the real thing, to that of warfare – the nation seeking revenge for the ills done their team when they lost a series 4-0 in South Africa seven years earlier.

As James Belich, professor of history at Auckland University, points out: “New Zealanders’ identity has its eggs in a few more baskets than it did then. In 1956 there wasn’t much more than rugby and mountain climbing.”

New Zealanders share, he notes, most nations’ tendencies to get excited about things they do well. In the sporting sphere, yachting and golf – Michael Campbell’s victory in last week’s US Open is routinely described as one of the greatest achievements in New Zealand sports history – now supplement rugby.

Belich adds: “There has been a huge upsurge in New Zealand film, of which the Lord of the Rings trilogy is the best-known example. Literature and the theatre are strong, there’s a fascinating new ‘Pasifika’ culture developing in Auckland and a certain amount of pride in New Zealand’s political independence, with a government that said yes to Afghanistan and no to Iraq.”

“Pasifika” reflects a nation changed by immigration – and while the South Sea islanders giving rise to it play rugby, the Asians who make up one fifth of Auckland’s population mostly don’t. Political independence is led by Helen Clark, the second consecutive woman prime minister. The governor-general, the chief justice and the head of New Zealand Telecom are all women, although the private sector remains male-dominated. All of this is in line with New Zealand’s tradition as a political innovator – the first with the vote for women, a welfare state and the privatisation of public services – but some change for a nation that was, argued an influential work of history, A Man’s Country.

Yet ceasing to be a monopoly does not mean no longer counting. Rugby remains a considerable force in modern New Zealand – not least because women play as well as watch. The main feature article in this year’s New Zealand Rugby Almanac – 71st in a continuous series – was about Anna Richards, star of the Black Ferns national women’s rugby team. Attendance at big matches remains a political duty. When Clark’s driver was caught speeding to an international last year, the under-fire premier noted drily that the only question she had not been asked was whether she would have been going to the match if she were not prime minister. The answer, almost certainly, was no. She belongs to a liberal generation alienated by rugby machismo and much prefers rugby league, the code played in the working-class Auckland district she represents.

The game encroaches on the arts and literature much as baseball does in the US. Foreskin’s Lament, the play by former All Black trialist Greg McGee, seen as an epochal development for New Zealand theatre, may now be something of a period piece, but when a group of writers led by Gordon McLauchlan wanted to explore a week in the life of a small town through linked pieces of fiction, The Littledene Cup Final had as its focus a big weekend match. And Lloyd Jones’s The Book of Fame, a fictionalised account of the legendary 1905 All Blacks, was both a prize-winner and best-seller.

Several thousand people attended a schools match in Auckland this month. The waiter at a Rotorua coffee bar, chosen at random for lunch in the early stages of the tour, turned out to have a brother playing professionally in France. The game is hard to escape – one reason why New Zealand also generates the world’s most dedicated rugby haters.

Sport offers small nations a means of making an impact on the world.
Uruguay’s soccer coach, Ondino Viera, once argued that “other countries have history. We have football.” Quite what it was about rugby, a game codified in English public schools, that struck so deep a chord in the frontier society of 19th-century New Zealand is a question for historical anthropologists. Yet strike it did. Within 15 years of the first recorded game, the debut edition of New Zealand Rugby Football Annual stated: “The climate supports football as pre-eminently our national game, in which we ought to be easily first.”

So it has proved. Rugby may have eschewed World Cups until 1987, and New Zealand won only the first, but the All Blacks’ historic winning percentage of 72.7 per cent has few parallels in any sport. Rugby has been a part of what it means to be a New Zealander, with an iconography stretching through Bob Deans’ disallowed “try” at Cardiff in 1905, 1960s idol Colin Meads with a sheep under either arm, David Kirk lifting the 1987 World Cup and Jonah Lomu destroying the 1995 English to current pin-up Danny Carter’s underwear adverts. Certainly there is, as several historians argue in a recent book, Tackling Rugby Myths, a strong element of invented tradition – but traditions nevertheless with as strong a hold as baseball lore in the US.

There is a downside, not least for anyone running the All Blacks. Belich argues that the expectation of constant success destroys any chance of building strategically in the way Australia have done. The Aussies are less successful between World Cups but better than New Zealand at winning them. “Every battle is a Waterloo,” says Belich. The British and Irish Lions, led – like the army of 1815 – by an Irishman, will not need reminding who won that particular battle.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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