Rugby and ethnicity

by Paul Thomas / 28 April, 2012
Ethnicity is never an issue when a team is winning.

Who said: “The white populace which holds itself in such high esteem, the hypocrites who make the same old polite, meaningless sounds about Maoris but who wouldn’t lower themselves to mix with the Maori on a Maori footing… The circumstances of many Maori are terrifying, but where is the concern for these people? And we spew out the platitudes about race relations, New Zealand’s paradise of racial equality”?

Was it:
A. Tariana Turia
B. Ranginui Walker
C. Hone Harawira
D. Tame Iti
E. Colin Meads

The answer is E. New Zealand rugby’s most iconic figure said that – and much more in the same vein – in Colin Meads: All Black (1974), which sold by the pallet-load and created a template for the ghostwritten sporting autobiographies that have poured forth ever since, providing the answer to the age-old question: what on earth am I going to give him for his birthday/Father’s Day/Christmas?

The cause of Meads’s ire was the Labour Government’s decision to “postpone” – in effect cancel – the 1973 Springbok tour of this country. His target was the white middle-class who, as he saw it, were terribly exercised about the suffering of South Africa’s black and coloured communities under apartheid but unaware of or indifferent to the grim everyday reality of many of their own indigenous people.

The paradox of rugby is that although it can’t seem to shake the suspicion that it harbours racist attitudes – witness the abuse directed at beleaguered Blues coach Pat Lam, a Samoan New Zealander – it has achieved a level of harmonious, productive integration that most of our institutions and sectors can only aspire to. The “browning” of rugby over the past 20 years has generated three controversies.

The first is “white flight” – middle-class white boys being driven out of the game because they can’t compete with their bigger, more physically mature Polynesian contemporaries. I’d like to ask those who insist white flight poses a long-term threat to rugby whether they believe there should be a quota system dictating that every high school first XV have a certain number of Pakeha. And given that these Pakeha kids are apparently deserting the game because it’s too tough for them, how many potential All Blacks are being lost in the process?

Then there are the linked propositions that there are too many brown faces in the All Blacks, which makes the team less representative of heartland New Zealand and has an adverse effect on performance because Polynesians lack rugby intelligence to go with their physical attributes and flair and are inclined to go missing in action when the going gets tough. As Lam observed, these rancid notions only ever surface when teams are losing; ethnicity is never an issue when they’re winning.

It’s tempting to believe that those who spout this rubbish aren’t real rugby followers since they obviously don’t know much history: there’s an unmistakable connection between the browning of the All Blacks and their becoming and remaining the No 1 team in the world. Before 1996, the All Blacks had never won a series in South Africa – three all-Pakeha teams had tried and failed, as had a couple with a sprinkling of “honorary whites” – and the Springboks had beaten us more than we had beaten them.

Half the match squad of 22 who secured the first series win on South African soil and shifted the arithmetic in our favour were Polynesian or Maori. There were suspicions that coaches John Mitchell and Robbie Deans were minded to turn the clock back when in 2002 they put out a team of 14 Cantabrians plus Jonah Lomu, the so-called Canterblacks. A year later, though, the side that beat the Wallabies to regain the Bledisloe Cup after a five-year hiatus contained six Polynesians.

And Sir Graham Henry made it pretty clear where he stood on the question of whether players from a Pacific Island background lack character, courage and rugby brains. During his time in charge, no fewer than five Polynesians captained the All Blacks.
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