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SRB: Old Boys Rule!

RUGBY The Pioneer Years by Alan Turley
HarperCollins, $50. Reviewed by JOCK SHRINK for the Scoop Review of Books
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Alan Turley has an eye for a gap and taken it. While every other rugby pundit is felling forests to cover the latest in the Deans vs. Henry soap opera, he’s gone back to basics to find the genesis of our great national saga. It’s a handsome book that’s going to please a lot of punters. The photos and illustrations are first class. There’s good coverage of the origins of the rugby species - from ancient civilizations, through the mass mauls of English village futeballe, the first rugby cheat William Webb Ellis, and on to the English public school old boys who brought the game to our stony and root-strewn paddocks.

Once in New Zealand, Turley flicks the ball at a genial pace through the development of hybrid games that were almost rugby, the standardisation of rugby rules, and how the game caught on at school, provincial and national level. We get all the whos, whats and whens. But not so much of the whys - a little niggle I’ll get to later.

Turley is at his best breathing life into our rugby pioneers. Being a former Nelson City Councillor, he’s keen to barrack for the Nelson old boys who did the hard yards early on. My favourite has to be JP Firth – Mr Rugby – who, as a master at Nelson College, reffed a game between Nelson and Wellington Colleges. In the second spell a Wellington lad made a brilliant break, only to be cut down by a devastating tackle… by the ref! Mr Rugby made profuse apologies for letting the occasion overtake him and was, supposedly, forgiven by all concerned. Yeah, right. Realising that this was a game where brain explosions were inevitable, Mr Rugby went on to be the first ref to award a penalty try. And took a pioneering role in seeing this included in the international rules. Who says refs can’t learn from their mistakes.

Turley’s style is no-nonsense, up the guts, and don’t think too much about it. He succeeds on these terms. But I have to say I was little miffed there wasn’t more analysis of just why a few rugby pioneers managed to convert the masses. Just why was it that this game, over others, appealed so much? Was it that pioneer life was rugged and violent, and rugby was a reflection of this? Or rugby was a way to assert that Kiwis were more macho compared to the effete English soccer players of Mother England? Or perhaps the lack of ladies meant the boys craved human contact of any kind, and bashing other blokes on the field was the only acceptable way to do this?

We don’t know. There were no in depth after match interviews to tell us. Still, Turley could have had a crack at it - a speculator, as it were? After all, his by-line does promise to show us “How rugby captured our hearts”. Then again, perhaps Turley knows his limits and would rather leave the fancy footwork to the likes of the excellent The Game of Our Lives by Finlay MacDonald and Bruce Connew, or Jock Phillips’ A Man’s Country, which remains the seminal work on Godzone’s man alone, need for mateship and expression of this in the likes of rugger.

That’s not to say Turley doesn’t include some nice incidental social history. The program for an 1883 rugby dinner lists the order of Toasts as - THE QUEEN - THE AUCKLAND TEAM - THE OTAGO TEAM - THE UMPIRE - KINDRED SPORTS - THE LADIES - THE PRESS. One imagines this was in descending order of importance.

Turley is keen, however, to honour the Press’s contribution to the pioneering rugby spirit. After all, without them, much of the lore would have been lost. The chapter - From a Media Perspective – features some classics, such as : “Both umpires overruled the [Hauraki] objection. The Hauraki captain withdrew his men from the field and as J.Allen prepared for the place kick, one of their number pulled down the goalposts.” (Thames Advertiser) Hence the phrase “moving the goalposts”.

For all his good work, though, Turley’s lack of analysis can hamstring him at times and leave big gaps. He mentions that the threat of Victorian (Aussie) Rules to rugby was dismissed by local rugby players when they slagged it off as ‘the blackfellas game’. Yet it was brought here by Aussie gold prospectors, most presumably white. So why was it the game for blackfellas? Turley makes no comment.

Further gaps open up when Turley embraces the stock and trade of all too many sports commentators past and present - the sweeping generalisation that lacks any support. Here’s a few pearlers:

‘No other activity has contributed so much to the New Zealand way of life and to our sense of national identity as the game of rugby.’ Umm… what about farming? Gardening? Fighting in a few wars? … Okay, maybe he’s right. Turley is certainly a fan, and we love his enthusiasm, but then there’s this about William Webb Ellis running forward with the ball. In Turley’s words, he became ‘The greatest sporting legend since Phidippides the Greek heroically ran from Marathon to Sparta.’ And ‘No other sports code today can boast such an iconic figure.’ Or, apparently, such one-eyed writers on the code who could rival the Cyclops.

But my biggest beef revolves around Turley’s commentary on the ruckus that occurred when several Southern provincial unions refused to join the newly established NZRFU. Turley reports that Canterbury and Southland held out until 1894, when ‘…quietly and without too much fuss, the only schism that ever threatened the stability of unity and rugby in this country was set aside.’

Now we have the kind of gaping hole the All Blacks find when Richie McCaw is sidelined - a chasm into which I would like to throw a few schisms. Apparently, the African nations boycotting the 1978 Montreal Olympics because we broke the Gleneagles Agreement to play rugby in South Africa wasn’t a threat to our national game. Nor was that rather divisive 1981 Springbok tour? Nor the 1986 Rebel Cavaliers tour of the Republic that necessitated the birth of the Baby Blacks? Nor the threat when league had all the dosh and bought every All Black who could kick a goal - John Gallagher, Matthew Ridge, Marc Ellis… (okay, so maybe league did us some favours).

Then there was the high drama of the breakaway professional rugby circus that threatened to take the cream of the All Blacks in the 90s, until St Jock Hobbs saved the game for the NZRFU and all New Zealanders. Not to mention the current crisis where some of the best NZ players would rather play in Europe for big bucks, than here in the freezing cold and dark for comparative beer money. So that the revered black jersey is no longer the holy grail. And the All Blacks are losing the odd game or two, and their aura, and even worse… viewers!

Big threats. Huge gaps. But we must remember this book was funded by the New Zealand Rugby Foundation and has not one but two forewords, one by John Graham and the other by no less than Sir Brian Lochore. They loved the book. And you can imagine Turley felt a duty to his masters, not to rake over anything too smelly or controversial, lest these Old Boys bring back the ruck and show him what pioneer rugby was really all about.

The focus then is very much on heroes and not villains. And the author has kept his one eye firmly on promoting the game played in heaven as God’s own. That said, as that great proponent of mental skills, John ‘Journeyman’ Mitchell, said – I can’t have negative people around me. A negative feeling leads to a negative thought and that leads to a negative action. So what’s wrong with a book written by a fan, for true supporters to lap up? Not much really. On that basis, the rugbyhead in me found a lot of the facts Turley dug up truly fascinating. I’m now guaranteed to kill at sports pub quizzes, and can amaze my mates with prime rugby triv during the slow bits of games. If that sounds like your bag, then this is your book, one I can heartily recommended for rugby nuts with a gap in their collection.

For you good old boys, here’s some tasters of the rugger triv gold you’ll find here:

Q1. Why was passing in early footie games frowned upon?
A. Because it was seen as cowardly to avoid being tackled.

Q2. What type of ball did William Webb Ellis carry forward so momentously in 1823?
A. A leather four-panel hand-stitched by William Gilbert, a boot and shoemaker who was also a curer and procurer of pigs’ bladders. It’s this Gilbert name that is still carried on balls today.

Q3. Who made up the first rules of rugby?
A. Three fifteen year old Rugby School students in 1845. There were thirty-seven in all.

Q4. How were the first games policed?
A. By the two captains, hence long arguments on the field.

Q5. How did a “Try” get its name?
A. When a touchdown occurred, the advancing team could “try” to kick a goal. This was how points were mostly scored in early games. Later, the ‘try’ itself earned points.

Q6. When was the first recorded women’s game of rugby in NZ?
A. 1891. It was to select an Auckland team to make a southern tour. But the game was described as a farce and the idea was abandoned. (Tell that to the Black Ferns and their three World Cups!)

Q7. Who did the 1924-25 Invincibles lose to?
A. No, not a trick question. They were rocked in their socks when they lost a warm up game versus Auckland, then pulled them up to win all thirty four games on tour.

Q8. In 1890, when Auckland Grammar suspected the Thames School of Mines had ring-ins, what did the Grammar captain do to establish if the mining students were legit?
A. Challenged them to state the formula for potassium cyanide.

Q9. The positional term ‘five-eighths’ comes from where?
A. F.Childs of Merivale, reasoning they were between the halves and three-quarters.

Q10. Who invented the controversial wing-forward position and wrote the first ever NZ rugby coaching manual?
A. Tom Rangiwahia Ellison, a member of the 1888-89 Native team to England, captain of the first official NZ team to Australia, ref, administrator, lawyer, and a man who Turley believes was ‘one of the first Maori intellectuals’.

Q11. Who are the reigning Olympic champs in rugby?
A. USA. They won the last gold medal game played in 1928.

Q12. Which NZ club team had the silver fern on their jerseys in 1878, and the NZRFU had to later ask permission to use it?

A. The Feilding club of Manawatu. Strangely, Turley has overlooked this fact. Probably because there’s no actual proof, but it’s an often told local legend… and, after all, that’s what this book is all about – legends.

Enjoy.

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Comments can be left at the bottom of this story on the SRB site


Jock Shrink was one of New Zealand’s most promising winter Olympians until a tragic curling accident resulted in him having a complete groin reconstruction. Forced into an early retirement, Jock threw himself into studying the psychological component of sport, receiving a degree from the University of Denver. His book, The Top Two Inches, is regarded as a seminal work in mental skills coaching

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