Four years ago, on the eve of the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, the excitement and controversy of a home event jostled with the deeper dread that the All Blacks might not win their own tournament. Even at the end, the prospect of final-hurdle failure was so utterly present that when they did actually win, it was hard to know whether to feel jubilant, relieved or just sick.
In 2015, something different is happening. The play is far away and the dread so much more distant. What has happened instead is that the game has been caught up in an alienating political murk.
In a complex, considered piece of writing on Saturday, Philip Matthews drew together rugby, refugees and the off-the-rails flag process to ask What is a New Zealander?
Rugby or refugees? Suddenly it seemed that while we were having an artificial debate about New Zealand and its values, a real and meaningful one was breaking out by accident. And it was not just the usual critics. As the refugee crisis worsened, newsreader Mike McRoberts said on Twitter that "it's not a flag that defines us as a nation, it's how we treat others".
The same point was made in powerfully graphic form by journalist Lyndon Hood at the Scoop website. Hood turned the silver fern that dominates three out of the four designs on the flag change shortlist into a barbed-wire fence that keeps refugees out.
We were suddenly having a debate about national values on three fronts, with each raising a question to mull over. What does it mean to use Parliament for the launch of the All Blacks' Rugby World Cup squad? Are we the generous and welcoming people that we like to tell ourselves we are? Can any visual image summarise our contradictions, histories and hopes?
We're told it was the NZRU's idea to stage the announcement of the All Blacks' Rugby World Cup squad at Parliament. Did it genuinely intend the weird, uneasy live-on-TV event we saw? Could anything have taken the game further away from its home-ground mythologies than having Jonathan Coleman honk his way through an unnecessary introduction and politicians jostle in awkward photo-ops afterwards? As Megan Whelan noted in a roundup of reactions, many of those who felt most uneasy about the stunt were those closest to the game.
As Victoria University political scientist Jon Johansson observes in Matthews' story, John Key's urge to "drape himself all over the All Blacks" has never been stronger than it is now. He is Richie McCaw's public mate. He openly proposed adopting the All Blacks' silver-fern-on-black trademark as a new national flag. His declaration that the soon-to-retire captain might have a future in politics spawned a flurry of absurd news stories. Ultimately, it seems less that he wants to brand New Zealand on the All Blacks than to brand himself and his government.
As both Johansson and Whelan note, all this cannot help but call to mind Key's infamous difficulty in recalling his position on the great moral divide that was the 1981 Springbok Tour. The irony there, of course, is that the rationalisation inevitably brandished by those who favoured playing with apartheid South Africa was that sport and politics shouldn't mix.
At the same time, another fine piece of writing offered a more appealing – nay, flattering – vision of rugby and its connection to our national identity. Andy Bull's journey for The Guardian in search of the making of the All Blacks – arguably the world's most successful sports team – should be of interest even to those of you who have no interest in the game.
What Bull finds is a culture that has successfully adjusted to the new world of professionalism by – paradoxically – emphasising playing for fun. One where even the concrete-mixers of the front row are taught to catch and pass. Most notably, he implies that the moderation of childrens' sport, the very thing habitually decried as "political correctness", might actually be the key to New Zealand's global dominance of rugby.
Just as interesting is his explanation of how the game got there.
They spend a lot of time and effort surveying young players. In one of its recent surveys, the NZRU asked the participants to define what rugby meant to them. “For the coaches and the parents and the school administrators, it was about results, it was about winning, and it was about being better than everyone else,” Anderson says. “For the kids it was slightly different, for them it was about the battle and about a sense of ownership. About it being ‘my space, my game, my friends, my school’. And most of all it was about it being enjoyment.
There's something really remarkable about this. It's a consultation process that paid most attention to its least influential respondents. It's the opposite of top-down.
The most affecting part of Bull's story is its conclusion. The last leg of his journey is a visit with Tiki Edwards, the NZRU’s Maori community manager, in Rotorua. They drive to Kawerau, and to Tawera High School, where even for the kids, gang culture is so omnipresent that "Tiki needs a variety of different training bibs because the kids will refuse to wear them if they are in the colours of a rival gang." Here, rugby is depicted as a way out – not in terms of professional careers, but simply as a means to something better to believe in.
On the drive back to Rotorua, Tiki talks more about the ties between the people, their community, and their land. He mentions Maori concepts: whakapapa, ancestral connections; whenua, land connections; whanau, family connections. Tiki talks, too, about the haka. “People think it is a war challenge but to be honest mate, we never came to the battlefield to tell you that we were here to challenge you. We came to kill you. The haka isn’t about the enemy. It is about us. It’s about opening ourselves up to our ancestors, to their spirits, about filling ourselves with their strengths and gifts.” He pauses. “It is hard to explain. And to be honest, most Europeans don’t get it.”
It is, let us be honest, a rosy view. Bull writes admiringly of the way Auckland Grammar requires its young rugby to stars to get their education and not only to win games and attract the talent scouts. But he says nothing of the player-poaching and rule-bending that has become rife in school rugby, or the curious disfunction at the city's flagship team, The Blues.
But, like Steve Hansen comfortably declaring his love for the players in his charge, it's better a better thing to believe in than a corporate beer campaign that appropriates the game's history to tell us "We Believe".
People everywhere invest great emotional loyalty in sports teams. And that's okay. On a personal level, my feeling for the game is undoubtedly driven by the fact that I played it through my childhood. That my strongest bonds with my late father lie in the way he was there every Saturday, watching me play, driving me and the other kids to and from the ground, offering praise in the cautious way that men of his generation did, as if there was only a finite supply. That I did, in fact, harbour dreams of being an All Black.
I never expect others to feel the same way. But I'm far more comfortable in expecting them to respect that than in expecting them to embrace instructions in patriotism from politicians and liquor corporations. Those things are just unpleasant noise, whether you love the game or not.
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.