how I learned to stop worrying and love the RWC

rugby world cup 2011I’ve never been much of a sports fan. This is partly related to the fact that I am terrible at every sport I ever tried except the one that involved a good deal of lying down (small-bore rifle shooting, before your mind runs away with you).

At our country primary school there were two sports available in winter: netball (for girls) and rugby (for boys). Our school was very small, and there weren’t many boys in mine and the adjacent year groups, so it was semi-compulsory to play just so a team could be fielded.

I never really enjoyed it. I was much smaller than the other boys, and my lack of speed, complete unco-ordination, and poor eyesight (I couldn’t wear my glasses playing) meant that often as not I was placed on the wing where I could trail around after everyone else without being expected to either catch the ball or pass it on, two things I was pretty hopeless at. Many games I did not even get to touch the ball, and any attempt of mine at tackling the opposition usually resulted, at best, in being shrugged off like an errant piece of dandruff.

On the plus side, there was always the pie and fizzy drink at the end of the match. But the attractions of these were not enough, and I refused to play in my last year at primary school1. The next year, at boarding school, despite the plethora of new choices available, I again refused to play any winter sport. At one point I was threatened with the cane unless I took one up (they were very interested in keeping the boys gainfully occupied at the weekends: sport on Saturday mornings, church on Sunday mornings) but by keeping a very low profile out of view of the masters I was able to quietly read books instead.

That year was the year of the Springbok Tour. A prefect, the same one who in the interests of science had once attempted to fold me into a small cupboard above a wardrobe2, now visited each boy in turn, asking them pointedly as to what their views on the tour were. There was little doubt as to what the correct answer should be.

At that time I had no view (and at the age of 13, why should I have had?), but I resented being forced to have one under threat of violence. So then, and more so over the next few years as I came to an understanding of what happened in 1981, rugby became associated for me with fascistic compulsion, mindless violence, racism and societal conflict. I came to hate it.

That was a long long time ago. It became OK to like rugby again, after the so-called Baby Blacks won the inaugural 1987 World Cup (even though over half of the players in that team had been on the rebel tour to South Africa the previous year). And I have to admit to having enjoyed watching the occasional game over the years: many sports, when played at the highest level, can have a beauty and power that transcends their form, and rugby is no exception to this.

But even today I find myself disinclined to be interested in the upcoming Rugby World Cup, in a way that never happens for any of the other quadrennial sporting events that pass by. I am disturbed by schools having Rugby World Cup teaching programs; school holidays being moved to accommodate it; the government having a minister for it; sponsors trumping the rights of free speech; ad campaigns of unprecedented, though amusing, idiocy; tenuous but intrusive product associations; endless parade of “Official Providers” of this or that; the expense of the tickets; and the general implied assumption that all New Zealanders love the game and should be so jolly pleased to have the Cup here (and stop your moaning: This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things).

I feel like I have to give a shit: I am writing a blog posting; I am thinking about it. I don’t want to.

Countering all this long and complicated personal history, baggage, and (I admit it) general whining though: maybe I should just lighten the fuck up. R. and the girls carry none of this and are more interested in rugby and the tournament generally than I am. For example, B₂ proudly told me the other day that she had asked to play in a “tackle-rugby” tournament for her school3; while R₂, out of the blue, explained to me who her favourite All Black is (Conrad Smith). Their excitement is uncomplicated and true, though perhaps borne of the hype that surrounds us like air at the moment.

Why should I be the wet blanket then? The Rugby World Cup is an Event, the likes of which we shall not see here again. Soak up the atmosphere; join the party; submit to the inevitable. Don’t think, enjoy.

So I relented and booked tickets for us all to see a game4; and the girls are very excited at the prospect.

I’m a little bit excited too. Just a little, even though I don’t really want to be. I will probably summon the kind of coolly logical interest that, with a bit of infectious situational enthusiasm supplied by others, leads me to follow the Football World Cup every four years with a degree of closeness. We’ll have fun at the game; we’ll stick up a wall chart and follow the teams we saw on the pitch. I may even come to know enough to have a passable conversation about rugby at work.

Let RWC Inc. chalk up a small victory.

And though I may be crushed, I am not completely bowed. A small piece remains mine. Yes: nothing, ever, will make me like Heineken.

1 The one exception to this was in a weight-graded tournament - probably the only time I ever enjoyed playing the game - where I, at 12, was captain of a team of 9 year olds, and for once better co-ordinated, faster, and harder than my team mates and opposition. Not that it resulted in much winning, of course.

2 I did not fit: my head stuck out. Even slamming the cupboard door repeatedly did not seem to alter this fact. (But I should also say that this sort of thing was pretty rare and in especially in later times, I was no innocent victim either. This was nothing like the Rugby School of Tom Brown’s Schooldays.)

3 Although the tournament is weight-graded, she has not played any contact sport before. And she’ll be playing against a whole lot of boys who have. I suspect she may have an idealised view of what all this will involve, in which case participation may prove traumatic. But I would be happy to be proved wrong.

4 Though not one with New Zealand in it as that would have been too expensive: we’re off to Tonga vs. France.

Gathadair @dubh
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