By The Spotter
It was nigh on forty long years ago that I fell in love with Rugby and the All Blacks. It was Saturday, 18 June 1977 to be exact and it happened the second that Grant Batty did this on the stark, weather-ravaged but totally magnificent, Athletic Park:
A fascinating thing about the All Blacks’ onfield line-up that day is the demography, particularly in light of now. Poverty Bay had two players, Manawatu two, Wanganui one, Southland one, North Auckland one (Super Sid, of course), while Wellington and Waikato supplied zilch. What a trip back in the tardis that would be.
That ‘77 Lions tour had enough drama for a Jackie Collins novel, with some stink house weather covering the country in the middle part of the tour (spawning surely one of the most famous Rugby photos of all-time of a completely carpeted-in-mud Fran Cotton), and an allegation in the ‘Truth’ newspaper that some of the tourists were ‘Lousy Lovers’. On the real field of play there were some enduring memories. For example this great score from the mercurial Andy Irvine against King Country-Wanganui combined:
Then there was the bizarre try in the game against the Counties-Thames Valley side when the home team’s winger Don McMillan from Paeroa scored a runaway, going in an arc from one side of the field to the other whilst most of the players were engaged in a mass brawl way down the other end. McMillan being chased in vain all the way by the ageing Irish legend, Mike Gibson.
Fast forward forty years on with a Lions group with almost triple the personnel of the 1977 team (who played a scarcely believable 25 matches here) now on our shores and we find that Rugby has taken a bit of a dusting of late; justifiably so on the issue of concussion (that is a massive concern with all sorts of scenarios possible), but also in recently-released research showing that Rugby Union isn’t quite the attraction it once was. With an ever-increasing movement onto other entertainment streams like live gigs and concerts, the cinema, the theatre and so on, it would appear our national sport is dying a drawn-out death.
That might be just be fair enough to proclaim, but only if one were to focus on a city like Auckland in those statistics, with its very internationally-trending population and device-obsessed millenials and their parents. One look at some of those kids and it appears they have just walked off the set of ‘The Big Bang Theory’. Are that lot even going to want a speck of mud on their neat appearance or would they perhaps even walk on a patch of grass in bare feet? Not a chance probably. Playing the odd sports-related video game is probably their only concession to Rugby or any other sport. No All Black games on free-to-air television certainly does little for Rugby’s popularity here, either. Trust me, I’ve been listening to irate people for years on this sore point.
Regarding the issue of kids turning off from playing organised Rugby; In a way, who can blame them? Getting taken out in a crunching tackle and feeling or being concussed is not much of a way to spend a weekend for many, let’s face it. And constant staring at screens isn’t going to give you the physicality required for a sport like Rugby, even in the weight-restricted grades. Obese-like bodies with almost no muscle aren’t the recipe for joining a sports team.
Out in the heartland it is surely a bit different. I can’t imagine that the passing over of Rugby is as pronounced as it is in the urban centres. I mean the last time anyone had a look, ‘Les Miserables’ wasn’t coming to Otorohanga any time soon, was it? Allied to the fact there is plenty of grass and paddock space in the rural areas for running around with a ball, unlike in Auckland with more and more plots of grass disappearing year upon year from the proliferation of high-rises and glum-slum apartments.
The only contemporary issue I can really see denting the fabric of Rugby here is the concussion problem. And that particular issue will probably loom large for a very long time. It is sure to be ongoing, or at least until there are even further very strict rule changes implemented to help sort out that ugly sceptre.
Age will play a big part in the Rugby’s continuing popularity here. If the concussion-factor doesn’t decimate the amateur stocks, any rapid decline in numbers of fans or participants won’t be seen for another forty to fifty years at least, when our current younger adult generations aren’t as socially or politically active or begin dying off.
I’ll never stop loving rugby because it’s so deeply ingrained into my very being. To give you an idea, a massive regret is not knowing the whereabouts of my old Takapuna Grammar School rugby jersey. I sometimes still pine for it (at the age of forty-seven), even though I only had two seasons of wearing it. My high school existence was very up and down, but that jersey and the pride I felt with it on- that was different.
Finally, for your viewing pleasure (and bless you a thousand times over ‘no8Rugby2011’ for putting together this video, with a killer soundtrack to boot). You can even be forgiven for getting a couple of the years wrong.
Watch out soon for a type of competition on this site to rank the best All Black tries of the past fifty years, too. And watch for the Lions to throw the kitchen sink and then some at us in the First Test at Eden Park on June 24. They and Warren Gatland will know that that is far and away their best chance of winning any of the tests here. Additionally, having a Kiwi (and ex-All Black) as their head coach will be of huge benefit to them. Never underestimate that.
Correspond anytime folks: firstname.lastname@example.org (Paul)