by Desmond Wood
This is a meticulously researched and carefully written book, which examines New Zealand’s national game from all possible angles. It contains a detailed history of the sport and draws parallels with the condition of New Zealand society at the same time that rugby events take place. It is impressive in the way it unfolds and links the two strains.
Particular attention is paid to the way that the struggle against apartheid came to a head with the 1981 Springbok tour to New Zealand. It is clear that the tour shaped this country socially as well as it shaped rugby, ensuring that never again would a team selected on race represent New Zealand.
Some space is spent discussing how the changing demographics of New Zealand have been reflected in the makeup of rugby teams, in particular the rise to prominence of players from the Pacific Islands.
Chapters are devoted to Maori rugby, detailing its history and achievements, also the rise of rugby sevens and its inclusion in the summer Olympics. Women’s rugby gets a special mention, detailing the New Zealand domination of that sport, but decrying the lack of women in rugby management.
A lot of space is devoted to the rise of professionalism in the game and the increased prestige of the Rugby World Cup.
The book highlights the journey rugby has travelled from being a totally amateur sport played in clubs, which were often quite social in makeup, to a professional game where a young person can go straight from high school to playing for a super rugby team, and earning vast amounts of money. The incredible amounts of money poured into the game by sponsors and by television have no parallel in any other New Zealand sport, and surprised me, even though I have been a follower of the game most of my life.
The influence that New Zealand rugby has had on the rest of the world can be seen in the number of overseas national teams that are being coached by New Zealanders. When rugby became a professional sport the selection and culture of the All Blacks needed to become much more professional as well, and this change is well detailed in the book, even down to the history of the haka, and the all black jersey.
This is a book that could be read many times, with the reader gaining greater insight into the details of the national game each time. However, the reviewer cannot help but think that perhaps it was the changing New Zealand society that changed rugby, rather than the author’s view that rugby changed the nation.
Author: Desmond Wood
Publisher: Bateman, $39.99