Here’s where I test myself. I said the other day that I wanted to get better at just sharing thoughts on this blog, not taking so much time to think through the logic and trying to avoid that situation (that I fear awfully) of giving a point of view and then realising in short order that I had it completely wrong. So here goes.
I saw this in today’s Herald. I wondered what possesses a man to take out a public notice to share his anger with the NZRU. And my guess is there are two motivations and they both go to a bigger issue that’s important for New Zealand right now.
Let’s just accept that rugby matters a little too much to many New Zealanders. I’m one of them. I accept that my emotional fragility is too easily exposed by rugby – by our World Cup collapses, the righteous resurgence of the mighty Hawkes Bay, and my continuing bewilderment that Shayne Philpott could ever have been picked for the All Blacks.
But as so many before have noted it matters to us so much because rugby has always preserved a great deal of what we admire about our country and its view of (and place in) the world – its egalitarianism, its sense of community, its applause for those that take part (and three cheers for the ref). I’ve always liked that rugby felt a generational step slower, so that as society-at-large moved on, rugby held back a step, onside behind the last man’s feet, preserving the values we admired for just a wee bit longer. We had a rugby fraternity that was driven by preservation, its primary motivation being to hold on to what mattered, to preserve the game for all, not to constantly push an agenda of change and it’s ugly locking-partner, development.
What we have now is a rugby fraternity driven by progression, the drive to lead, to advance, to be at the forefront of development in the game. Which is an understandable position to take if you assume that being the most progressive will make you the best team in the world, and that being the best team in the world is the goal that matters most. But all evidence suggests that neither of those things are true.
We used to be the proudest rugby nation in the world, the nation to whom the game mattered most and who gave the most to the game. I guess it’s a logical corollary that being the best team in the world should therefore be our measure, so all our energy as a rugby fraternity should go into being the best (measured by winning the World Cup). But being the proudest and being the best are patently not the same thing.
We were the arguably the proudest rugby nation in the world before the World Cup existed, simply because we loved the game, it mattered to our schools, our communities, our provinces and, a handful of times a year, to us all united, parochialism set aside, through the All Blacks. It was the active participation of everyone, aligned to a pride in the way that game was played, that made us the proudest rugby nation in the world.
But in our pursuit of being the best we’ve given away what made us the proudest and now, sadly, we’re neither.
The other frustration I detect in Bruce Lochore’s public notice is the distance at which the NZRU now operates. It’s become a Corporate, as seemingly befits the entity that runs what has become one of New Zealand’s most high-profile industries. But it does feel like the NZRU’s taking the corporate thing just a little too seriously, doesn’t it? It’s easy to make the criticism, but I just feel that the NZRU’s embrace of ‘strategic pillars’, ‘objectives aligned to the vision’ and the ‘genesis and launch of a new vision for rugby in New Zealand’ don’t feel natural. It feels like we, or they, are pretending to be something we’re not.
(As an amusing aside check out this page from the NZRU’s website outlining its strategy. Under the Vision heading it establishes that it’s working to build ‘Wining’ All Blacks. (Since I wrote this, and alerted the NZRU, they’ve corrected the mistake. I have to admit I wish I hadn’t told them.) You can read too much into these things but if you’re going to set about building a winning team, one of the first things to focus on is actually being able to spell ‘winning’.)
It’s the pretending bit that’s got me wound up. I just feel that the way the NZRU operates, as manifested by the decision to reduce the number of sides in the NPC is completely inauthentic. And it’s not being authentic that ties together all that has been so frustrating about New Zealand rugby over so many years. It’s what links front-rows painted on planes, to John Mitchell’s psycho-babble, to All Blacks being rested from provincial duty to constant tinkering with domestic competitions. It just not authentic. It’s contrived, it’s artificial and it’s motivated by a misplaced belief in the value of all things progressive. It also has a dreadful feel of play-acting about it, of an organisation trying desperately to give the appearance of being grown-up and sophisticated, revelling in working groups and streamlining initiatives and building more effective structures.
Because if there’s one thing that defines New Zealand it’s authenticity. When we do great things it comes from the confidence of doing what’s right and natural. When we reject nuclear powered vessels or refuse to send combat troops to Iraq we do it motivated by doing what’s right. It’s authentic and genuine. Flight of the Conchords and Whale Rider? Authentic and genuine. 42 Below and Icebreaker? Authentic and genuine. Valerie Vili and Rob Waddell? Authentic and genuine.
Easily the most ‘New Zealand’ thing I’ve seen in the last 12 months was Rob Fyfe’s reaction to the Air New Zealand crash in France. I nearly wrote ‘handling’ of the crash in France, but actually that’s my point. He didn’t handle it. He reacted to it, in the most authentic and genuine way. And I believe most New Zealanders admire him enormously for doing so.
It’s the lack of authenticity in rugby that causes the NZRU to remove teams from the NPC, and it’s what motivates people like Bruce Lochore to resort to Public Notices to try and get the attention of a distant, misguided NZRU.
And that’s the real issue here. It’s authenticity that matters. It’s nothing more complicated than being honest and genuine, of being true to ourselves. And my romantic recollection is that rugby used to be close to the truest expression of who we are, and what rightly angers people like Bruce is that we can’t really say that anymore.