Two fellows eating hot chips out of a polystyrene punnet was a refreshing sight for my slightly festival strained eyes – the Stagtastic! T-shirt with a picture of the Ranfurly Shield on it confirmed I was in a slightly different corner of the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival world. Our library page on rugby didn’t even mention the Ranfurly Shield until last year, but I was quite keen to head to this session.
Somebody stole my game is the title of Chris Laidlaw’s new book. Laidlaw is a model of the traditional All Black ideal – Rhodes scholar, diplomat, race relations conciliator – coming, as the magazine Punch once wrote, from the days when the All Blacks had ‘the personality of a petrified forest’.
Host Lloyd Jones joked that when Laidlaw wrote Mud in your eye in 1973, that rugby players were surprised that a rugby player could write a book. “We circled it, picked it up, put it down.”
Also on stage was Gregor Paul, author of Black Obsession, and editor of Rugby Monthly. The main thrust of the session was essentially that rugby is no longer the great social connecter it once was. It’s an entertainment option where the loyalty of fans has been replaced by the fickleness of consumers of a heavily branded product.
There wasn’t much disagreement in the room, but I think there was palpable regret – most of the audience were very fond of the way things used to be.
Laidlaw argued that professionalism brings a new elitism – there used to be a continuum people were attached to; now the club players and provincial teams have drifted – those at the top live in a different universe.
Both Paul and Laidlaw thought the current system of getting players to the top teams was narrow and flawed. scholarships and contracts from an early age, poaching, inducements – all of this led to a narrow escalator system detached from everything else around it – a path of unfair expectation that is unhealthy.
The modern game is more like a farm system. Gregor Paul said that the professional era produced players that weren’t equipped as well for test level intensity.
“You totally disempower players for six-and-a-half days, but then for the eighty minutes that matter you want them to lead and take the initiative.”
If the game has changed, then so has the society that produces the players. Laidlaw said older All Black teams were “buttoned down”. “We were New Zealanders and we must remain modest. Now if you don’t blow tyour own trumpet, blog and tweet, then you don’t make it. It’s a huge shift.”
Paul said that ‘intrinsic motivation’ won us the 1987 world Cup. When asked to explain he said,: The whole ethos was self empowered – the coach or manager wasn’t there to motivate or help – just to guide tactically. There was a level of commitment – you used to have to give your right testicle to play for the All Blacks; Buck shelford very nearly did.
“The All blacks used to be the final destination, now its no longer true.”
The lament continued, with forays into the future of the game globally, the laes, referees, the wastefulness of the judicial system, and – most scary of all to some – the possibility that sevens, with its easy-to-understand rules, few stoppages and large crowd pulling power, might become the dominant form of the game.
And the question someone had to ask – will we win the 2011 Rugby World Cup?
Well, that’s why we’re playing the tournament.