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Keith Rankin: Sporting Blues

Sporting Blues
Keith Rankin, 14 February 2001

Sport - ie couch potato sport - is important to New Zealanders. It's a form of vicarious living for (in particular) men - a parallel to the soap operas and romantic novels that serve the same purpose for many women. Sport's fascination goes deeper than escapism, though. Sport provides many of the metaphors that mould and reveal our national mindsets; much as classic mythology and the bible did in the 19th and earlier centuries.

In New Zealand there is a mindset that likes to categorise people in indelible ink: good, bad, hero, violent, unemployable, lazy, right-wing, nerd, flaky, etc. Once labelled, then that's what a New Zealander is to other New Zealanders, forever.

Let's look at the way we categorise some sportspeople, to the detriment of them and to the teams they play for, or would play for if selected.

First, briefly, Jonah Lomu. We tend to typecast him as a rugby player who "cannot turn on defence". That serves as a euphemism for 'lumbering' and 'unintelligent'. Now, on account of his physique, his turning on defence will never be as good as his attacking skills. He has been typecast, so no matter how many intelligent things he does on the rugby field, or how much his defence may have improved, hardly anybody in New Zealand will ever notice. No matter how well Jonah does what he does best, too often we are more interested in defining him by the size of the gap between what he does best and the other things in which he is more ordinary.

A more interesting example for me is one of our most creative and talented rugby players in the 1990s; Lee Stensness. He played just test 8 matches for the All Blacks, in 1993 and 1997. An explosive inside-back - equally good at first or second five-eighths - with match-winning running and kicking skills, he was typecast early in his career with Auckland as a player who "couldn't tackle". For Cantabrians the "couldn't tackle" label was his second sin; the first was playing for Auckland.

It was with the Auckland Blues rather than the All Blacks that Stensness made his greatest impact, from 1996 to 1998. The Blues won the Super-12 in 1996 and 1997 and came second in a close final in 1998. Throughout that time, the Blues excelled on both attack and defence. Stensness played his way back into the All Blacks, but he could never shake off the "can't tackle" label.

The problem had little to do with his tackling; it was all about our perceptions of his tackling. (Indeed perceptions now dominate over substance in our political discourses.) As time went on, we (the NZ sporting public) increasingly noticed his missed tackles while failing to notice that he made many more tackles than he missed, and, most importantly, we failed to notice that his defensive game had significantly improved. Once a person is typecast, we only notice the things he or she does that conform to the label on their box.

The decline in the All Blacks can be quite closely dated to when Stensness was dropped in 1997. And the marked decline in Auckland rugby is very closely correlated to the timing of his decision to withdraw due to lack of ongoing motivation. By mid-1998, Lee Stensness had already achieved all he would be allowed to achieve in New Zealand rugby.

It seems quite bizarre today that an All Black victory over the Springboks at Johannesburg could be classed as a failure. In 1997, Stensness was dropped after such a "failed" All Black performance. In a game that the All Blacks played very well, relative to his previous 7 test matches, it was probably his least memorable. He was replaced by Alama Ieremia for the next game, with John Hart suggesting he was merely rotating his players. Ieremia - without Stensness' unique attacking vision - was, in Hart's words, "fresh legs".

Lee Stensness played his best all round rugby in the 1998 Super-12. (That was the first year after the retirement of Sean Fitzpatrick and Zinzan Brooke.) He had something to prove, having been dropped duplicitously from the All Blacks. Yet, despite his deeds on the field, the "cannot tackle" label had stuck. In the Super-12 final, Canterbury's tactic was to run Darryl Gibson from fullback at Stensness. Gibson never got past him.

Stensness was passed over for the All Blacks in 1998, despite his form, with quite inferior players getting the nod instead. So his rugby career in New Zealand came to an end, at the age of 28. When a person has unique talents - be it in sport or some other aspect in life - we tend to expect perfection in everything they do. We judge talented people on the basis of what they cannot do exceptionally well. And, once typecast, we only see what we expect to see of a person, no matter how much that person changes.

I am reminded of Stensness, because the malaise that cut short his career (and caused the All Blacks to fail in 1998 and thereafter) is the same malaise that is causing our cricket team - the 'Black Caps' - to fail this summer. In particular there is one player, Matthew Sinclair, whose situation reminds me very much of that of Lee Stensness. Sinclair burst on the scene in a moment of glory 15 months ago and, despite his obvious talent, has failed to live up to the overblown expectations his debut performance generated in us. Like Stensness in 1997, Sinclair became a scapegoat.

Sinclair has been typecast as a batsman who "cannot use his feet". Now I know that that's not true, despite the number of times it has been said. I saw him using his feet in some of the very good boundary shots that I saw on the cricket highlights early this month. It seems that no matter how much he improves this part of his game, we (and the commentators who hunt in packs) refuse to notice the many times he does move his feet.

The situation got so bad that the commentators started using terms like "stand and deliver" and "block and bash" as a way of anonymously criticising Sinclair. He was not only being criticised for getting out; he was also being criticised for scoring fours. He should have been scoring ones and twos, not fours, the commentators said. Yet in the first 15-overs of limited-overs cricket, the field is set by law to restrict singles while enabling boundaries. Limited overs cricket is won by teams that score lots of boundaries in the first 15 and last 10 overs, and lots of ones and twos in the middle of the innings when the fielders are more spread out and are at less risk of being run out.

New Zealand sport cannot afford to neglect its most talented players. Our propensity to typecast people is most apparent on the sports field. By focussing on the relative weaknesses of our most talented people, and by refusing to acknowledge that such weaknesses are not permanent features of their games, our best players are undervalued, and our team selections become very defensive, very risk-averse. Sport ceases to be fun when we are so rarely satisfied with our performances.

Despite much criticism from within the country he so much loves to represent, Jonah Lomu has survived at the top, longer than most. He is much more than a lumbering giant. But too many others of our best people have been and continue to be clobbered by the inappropriate and unsatisfiable expectations of the audiences that they must satisfy. Sportsmen such as those mentioned here are just the tip of the iceberg. Just ask those who were once scientists in New Zealand.

© 2001 Keith Rankin
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