Hard News by Russell Brown


The good guys

Last Monday, I stepped out of a gig to take a call from ABC Radio Adelaide's drive show, where I'd been asked to comment on the sibling rivalry between New Zealand and Australia, in light of the news that the two nations would contest the Rugby World Cup final.

Having been introduced with some obvious but good-natured jokes about "fush and chups" and jandals, I ventured that our current national conceit was that we might not always win, but we were the good guys. So we had the extravagantly sportsmanlike conduct of our national cricket team " ... and you guys have sledging, underarm bowling and detention centres."

I should note that I wasn't necessarily saying this is true, but what we would like to believe is true. Nonetheless, it was clear in the vox pops aired while I was on the line that Australians have quite a favourable view of New Zealanders. Our move on marriage equality came up several times. People on the street seemed to see us as liberal and practical. The grass here is, of course, rather less green than it looks from the other side of the fence, but it was a nice thing to hear.

We were having this conversation in the context of a sporting contest because sport, particularly at the national level, is a grand circus of virtues. Look at the values and characteristics we load on to the All Blacks. We want them – that is, we want ourselves, as expressed by them –  to be strong and humble, indefatigible yet carefree in their creativity. That we load on different things than we used to – no one ever wanted Pinetree Meads to be carefree and creative – is an indication of our evolving aspirations.

And above all, we want these guys who exercise controlled violence on our behalf to be decent about it. So this remarkable act of kindness after the match was pretty much perfect.

It's not just Sonny Bill. Nehe Milner-Skudder calmly intercedes too, patting the worked-up security guard on the shoulder to say they've got this, thanks. Liam Messam walks up and pops his All Black beanie on Charlie Lines' head. Steve Hansen ambles over, hands in pockets, to stand with him, so close he's touching, satisfies himself that things are under control and ambles on.

But it's mostly Sonny Bill. His action in walking young Charlie back over to his mum and then bestowing him with the World Cup winner's medal he's only just received himself was one of almost excessive generosity.

The act wasn't out of character for Williams at this tournament. He had already offered up his match tickets to any Syrian refugee who might want them, and stopped to comfort a dejected Jesse Kriel after the semi-final win over the Springboks. But it's a world away from the image that shadowed him for years after he switched to rugby (and then, perplexingly, switched back to the NRL for a season). He was the self-interested, unreliable glory-boy.

There will be a range of reasons for this, not least that he was a decent guy in the first place. His conversion to Islam seems to have brought him peace, and he clearly responded to the sense of family he found at the Chiefs. But the All Black environment has brought out the best in him. And not only him. There is a long list of All Blacks who have let themselves down in the past decade or two, often after consuming alcohol, but this team does not seem like that.

Credit for that surely goes above all to Hansen, who is as phlegmatic as his predecessor, yet comfortable saying he loves his players. We saw a number of coaching personalities modelled on screen in this tournament – Heyneke Meyer's man on the verge of a nervous breakdown, the alternately affable and tense Michael Cheika, the Latin passion of Argentina's Daniel Hourcade – but Hansen's manner seems perfectly Kiwi.

It's not as if the vexing elements of our national obsession with rugby have gone away. I think even the greatest fan will be happy to see the end of the media overkill. It will be a relief not to have the Herald's team churning out six different kinds of clickbait a day. People who don't care much for the game have understandably felt hectored into being proud of it. The game's association with alcohol consumption – and the violence that shadows that – contines to be a problem outside the national team.  

But ... before Rugby World Cup 2015 started, I wrote a post called A better thing to believe in, which concluded thus:

In the end, the All Black coach and captain and their charges represent a better version of New Zealand modernity than our corporate and political overlords do. They are an extraordinary team not only because they win nearly all the time, but because of the way they play the game. That way is an easier thing to feel comfortable with, to be represented by. It’s a better thing to believe in.

Remarkably, the All Blacks, their coach and manager and their extraordinary captain have not only ended the tournament as victors, they have validated those other ideas too.

It's not compulsory to revere or feel represented by the All Blacks and they're not more important than artists, writers, scientists and mothers. But if perhaps we were to bring some of their ability to reconcile what could be conflicting values – individual flair versus loyalty to the team, strength versus softness, commitment to systems versus creativity – to other elements of our national life, it would not be a bad thing. I'd vote for that.

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