Reason: Oh my god, it's another tall poppy

16:00, Mar 15 2014
Brian O'Driscoll
PURE CLASS: Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll holds his young daughter as he says goodbye to Irish fans on his last home appearance.

Oscar Pistorius and Brian O'Driscoll would not be where they are this morning if they were New Zealanders.

They would have been cut down to size. Snip, snip, snip. This country should be very proud of tall poppy syndrome. Occasionally it stunts growth, but more often it brings people down to Earth.

Karl Marx called religion the opium of the people, but these days the drug is celebrity. We are fixated on the stuff. Some bloke who is good at kicking a bit of inflated leather is asked questions with a reverence accorded the pope. No wonder blokes like Pistorius develop a god high. But get rid of the poppies and you get rid of the opium.

Richie McCaw didn't accept a knighthood because he was wary of how his mates would react, wary of being cut down to size, wary of being seen as too big for his boots. From Ernest Rutherford to Charles Upham to McCaw, this is a very Kiwi reaction. Humility is good.

The trouble with tall poppies is that they can be very beautiful or they can help you lose your mind. Some time just before 8 o'clock this morning O'Driscoll will win / be winning / have won, depending on what time you get up, dear reader, his 141st cap for Ireland.

Judging by the reaction to his final home game the week before, a nation will be in turmoil. Last Saturday Ireland's television figures during the match were 672,700, a 57 per cent share, but 10 minutes after the game they spiked to 876,510.


An RTE spokesperson said: "Saturday ratings were unique. Usually figures peak in the final few minutes of a match as people want to catch the final score. But on Saturday figures peaked 10 minutes after the final whistle. Viewers were tuning in specifically to watch Brian say goodbye. It was a historic occasion."

Around the corner from the stadium two houses were festooned with a banner, "In Bod we trust". O'Driscoll's nickname, if a little mocking, deliberately rhymes with the deity. As O'Driscoll spoke to television after the game, a huge picture of the man was unfurled from the sky. It was like watching a TV evangelist. Such is the Life of Brian.

The stadium gave the man three standing ovations. He was made the man of the match. O'Driscoll acknowledged the award might have gone to Jonny Sexton on another day and wondered how you could be man of the match when you had only played 60 minutes.

The cameras zoomed in on his actress wife Amy Huberman and their little girl. The crowd chanted "one more year". Twitter was full of comments like the obligatory, "You're a legend". Maybe that's why Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu spear-tackled O'Driscoll all those years ago. They were cutting the tall poppy down to size.

Not a word of this, mind, is a criticism of O'Driscoll. He has stood tall through it all. He has retained his dignity and his humour and played some bloody good footie at the same time. If he had been an All Black, alongside players of that quality, O'Driscoll would have torn the rugby world apart.

Once upon a time Dublin homes had pictures of Eamon de Valera, the Pope, even JFK, a good - or not so good - catholic boy. These days men like O'Driscoll and Bono are more likely to be perched on walls and mantelpieces.

And in South Africa the face of Pistorius used to be on half the country's billboards. Then Pistorius shot his girlfriend. That is the one fact we are certain of. The posters were torn down. For most of the Rainbow Nation Pistorius became a fallen idol.

But whose fault is it that Pistorius now stands trial? A man like O'Driscoll might just have the chops to keep his feet on the ground, but the Blade Runner was never man enough to be a symbol for the nation. How many of us could be?

South Africa liked to see him as Resurrection Man. A crippled nation had risen from the deformities of its birth and now here was Pistorius, a perfect poster boy, a man who could look Nelson Mandela in the eye. South Africa couldn't really deal with itself, so it invented Blade Runner. Praise the lord, a man with no legs can run faster than the world, it's a miracle.

Only it wasn't a miracle at all, it was a disaster waiting to happen. In reality Pistorius was a shooter, an egotist, a man of rage and deep insecurity, a symbol of South Africa, the gun nation. One person observed of Pistorius' autobiography, "There is nobody there". How could there be?

But parts of South Africa still can't accept that and there is an absurd religiosity swirling around the trial. Oscar promised to "dedicate his life to God" if his slaughtered girlfriend survived. His brother avows that his strength "lies solely in the tenacity 2 pursue Jesus". A supporter taps out, "Oscar Pistorius will rise again! I believe so".


Oh my. Maybe the humble Kiwi could sometimes be a bit more encouraging, but give me tall poppy syndrome any day. Pistorius could not have happened in this country. Sophie Pascoe is an inspiration, but she's not a holy woman.

Ernest Rutherford split the atom, he mentored 11 Nobel prizewinners, he fostered equal rights for women at Cambridge and found homes for displaced Jewish scholars in the early 30s. He was a big man, a loud man, a man of rages.

Einstein called him the second Isaac Newton.

New Zealand calls him one of their own, just another Ern who was pretty good at physics.