Years ago I wrote a book about me and our family, Somebodies and Nobodies: Growing Up in a NZ Sporting Family. I became as versatile as they get in sport – cricket, hockey, mountaineering, yacht racing on keelboats, harriers/road and cross country running, and golf caddying here and overseas. My brother Glenn set an example on and off the cricket pitch that few if any here could match. When he turned professional, he got sniped at and derided by some – Walter Hadlee in particular – but relative to payments dished out to sportsmen and women today he was paid a pittance. Greg, in some ways the brightest of us, went his own way. He decided to try to make it in another sport, golf, and he sure did. He won several tournaments in various parts of the world. I caddied for him here and there, including when he won the Australian PGA in Victoria and the NZ Open at Paraparaumu.
We were a low-income family and frequently reminded as kids that “self-praise was no recommendation” and “don’t blow your own trumpet”. In his splendid, comprehensive, insightful and entertaining book Brothers in Black, Jamie Wall explores the “culture in some families” in order to discover how much of it can be related to their sporting success.
He’s discovered that “an astounding number of brothers” have played “top-level rugby in New Zealand” and several still are. Take, for instance, the Barretts, Whitelocks, Saveas and Franks, and, before that many others including the legendary Meads, Whettons, Brownlies, and so on.
In his introduction, Wall sums up his book and New Zealand rugby concisely when he writes: “Brothers have been part of the All Blacks since the beginning. Through both world wars, when the game itself went through a gigantic upheaval. Through the amateur era of punch-ups and mud, to the big money- and media-driven world we live in today. One thing is for certain: they have played a part in almost every single notable event in the team’s history.”
According to Wall it’s very likely the huge majority of NZ rugby followers, when we think of the game, remember “the amateur era, in which sleeves were longer, boots and rucks actually got dirty, and the compensation for sacrificing your body and time for an All Black jersey was some free beers and a pat on the back”. Nowadays, writes Wall, we’re in “the modern age in which every single drop of sweat that drips from the players’ brows is caught in slow motion as it falls onto their scientifically-designed and sponsor-laden jerseys.”
Wall’s convinced that much of what rugby stands for “becomes ingrained” in players and, hence, in a great many New Zealanders. He writes that “the idea that rugby is indeed a brotherhood” leaves you with “a feeling of belonging that no one else can understand. You and your teammates all go through something together, strive to achieve the same goal for 80 minutes, sweat, bleed and fight until you walk off, bonded.” Not surprisingly, a fair few brothers have aspired to “go all the way”, as Wall writes, “to the holy grail of rugby: an All Blacks jersey”.
He also analyses “some of the massive changes that have occurred in New Zealand rugby”. One aspect is the way players use physical force. Not long ago I recall hearing two blokes sitting behind me in a bus discussing a “great game of rugby”. One of them said that if it weren’t for the “ferocity” of the contact, the tackling – what many these days term “big hits” – the game wouldn’t be anywhere near as popular.
I’ve long thought that’s been the case and that courage and skill is one thing, brutality another. Where do we, and should we, draw the line? There’s an awful lot of macho genes in New Zealand culture.
A year or two back, an overseas visitor of mine, after watching a game of rugby, said to me: “I’ve never seen so much on-field assault and battery and, by the way, swooning and encouragement from so many spectators.”
Wall makes it clear that all players are required to be ultra-fit, gutsy and courageous and, for the most part, determined to “smash” the opposition.
Recently, when chatting to a former All Black coach/selector I asked him for a few comparisons between teams of the past and those of today. He said: “Today’s lot have clever, more effective defences, bigger forwards and better athleticism.” For a lean and near scrawny sod like me, many if not most of today’s players – backs included – seem formidable, immense.
But what about the women, the Black Ferns? Wall has a chapter looking at Annaleah Rush, sister of former All Black Xavier Rush, and Niall, sister of Sonny Bill Williams. Among many things we learn that Sonny and Niall “played on the same field a few times for the All Blacks and Black Ferns Sevens teams”.
Wall concludes his stunning book with a chapter on the Barrett boys, Beauden, Scott and Jordie, which emphasises the significance of brotherhood and family ties in the All Blacks.
Ah, whatever we do or think, never disregard or devalue our noble legacies.
Brothers in Black by Jamie Wall (Allen & Unwin, $36.99)