Nostalgia covers up painful reality

KEVIN FOLEY
Last updated 08:11 14/04/2014

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Recently an ex-All Black died at a relatively early age and quite rightly there were condolences and sympathy for his family.

Now that a bit of time has passed it is timely to consider many of the puerile slaverings from ageing sports jocks that accompanied Frank Oliver's passing, comments which often come with the deaths of ex-All Blacks of the "old school".

The latest outburst is an example of both a rose-tinted view and a myth. The tinted spectacles overlook the thuggery that occurred, and the myth in this, and similar cases, is that rugby players of the old school, especially forwards, were as tough as teak because of their manual occupations and rural lifestyle.

There is a strange nostalgic tinge to the good old days "when men were men" and what happened on the field stayed on the field. What actually stayed on the field was an opponent's blood or even a body part.

Real men "got their retaliation in first" (unprovoked assault), could use a "bit of slipper" or "ruck" someone (kick an opponent), give a "tap on the scone" (hit an opponent in the head), and the "claret (blood) would run."

They were the enforcers, the "hard men" whose actions on the rugby paddock were given plaudits by pundits, actions which on the street would get them a few years in the slammer.

But it would be hypocritical to think that the public did not love it. From ancient Rome to today's calls to "bring back the biff", it is obvious that there is a strange need for the public to watch people assault each other.

And it is not just men as is witnessed by the numbers of women at boxing matches and cage fighting.

Condoned thuggery on the paddock was symptomatic of society especially in the 50s, 60s and 70s as these were dark days in New Zealand with domestic abuse largely ignored and sexual abuse hidden.

There was an ambivalence to violence.

Rugby and beer were inextricably linked (perhaps no change there) and only namby pambys moaned about getting their heads cut open, their eyes gouged or scrota hacked. Hard men played with broken arms, bleeding testicles and dislocated shoulders. Concussion was for the sissies. This stupidity was called "courage" and "not letting the team down".

These so-called "hard men" were not even star All Blacks and most resorted to the "physical" (another euphemism), because they were lacking in real skills. None of them would foot it now with the McCaws, Retallicks, Reads and Kainos.

The TMO and the fear of loss of earnings through suspension have cleaned the game up, a game that is more physical and with a greater potential for damage that is largely inflicted in the open. Those who call "bring back the mongrel" forget that mongrels are a mixed breed, loyal, cunning and stupid.

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The other myth that often gets trotted out is that rugby's hard men were toughened by physical work such as mustering, fencing and other rural labouring work.

This is a lie that is perpetuated despite evidence to the contrary. Greg Ryan in his essay The End of an Aura, analyses and demolishes this All Black myth. With tables of statistics he compares teams, their successes and failures with the occupations of the players in amateur days.

From 1946 to 1980, "All Blacks were at least four or five times more likely to be drawn from professional and technical occupational categories".

Ryan then notes that this included "no less than 48 school teachers" and wonders why the "nostalgic critics of the late 1990s were not calling for more schoolteachers to return some traditional strength to the national team"!

With the arrival of professionalism All Blacks have only the one occupation - that of a rugby player.

Nostalgia is a fine concept and enjoyed by us all in various ways but it usually covers a reality that is rough and painful. It just isn't what it used to be.

- The Timaru Herald

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