Rugby is the conversational topic New Zealand men default to at barbecues and social functions when we don’t know each other, and then again after we do, and so on until either the end of our natural lives or we run out of beer, whichever comes first. Rugby is our safe space, a subject on which we are all expert and broadly in agreement: praise Razor, sack Foster etc. It is a space for us to valorise toughness and victory, and to scorn weakness and loss.
During the All Blacks’ historically poor run of results over the past year, the emotion most commonly expressed has been anger. Emotions mostly not expressed include sadness, shame, despair, hopelessness and grief, because the expression of such traditionally non-masculine emotions in this typically masculinist environment is not a good way to stimulate conversation, or to win friends.
Men default to anger in these situations because it’s socially acceptable and because it’s an effective way of concealing the emotions that aren’t. This is sad and pathetic, of course, but it’s also boring. How much more interesting will the conversation be in the days after a hypothetical, historic and not-improbable All Blacks loss to Wales or Scotland in a couple of weeks, if I could tell a group of guys at a hypothetical subsequent barbecue that the result has negatively impacted my sense of self-worth, that it has served to undermine my self-concept, that I have lain awake thinking about it at night and have found myself fixating on it during the day, to the point I’ve begun worrying about the impact on my relationships and my ability to fulfil my professional obligations?
Chances are I would not be able to get through even a single sentence before someone coughed “soft cock”, someone else farted into their hand and made me smell it, and everyone else went inside to “get a drink”.
So often we have celebrated the supposedly heroic macho qualities of the All Blacks: Richie McCaw, who played much of the 2011 World Cup with a broken foot, or Buck Shelford, who played much of a 1986 test match against France with a disembodied testicle. When McCaw played through the pain to help the All Blacks win the World Cup, while presumably also doing severe long term damage to his body, was it an act of noble sacrifice or abject stupidity? One possible answer comes from Shelford’s account of his own legendary act, of which he wrote: “I raise it simply as an example of what people probably think of as mental toughness, but it isn’t. What that was was carrying on playing when I needed some stitches in my scrotum.”
In their clear-headed summary of facts and the way they explode the myth of the country’s most visceral example of idealised masculinity, those two sentences are among this country’s finest pieces of sportswriting, but I doubt they’ve ever been discussed by a group of men standing around a bbq, which demonstrates how difficult it is to dislodge an image of a torn scrotum once it’s embedded in the national consciousness.
Rugby is a game of power, anger and brutality but it is also a game of beauty. I can, and often do, feel moved by it – during, for example, a complex passing move, in which the defence is read, understood and dismantled at high speed by multiple players working together, understanding and reacting to each other’s desires without recourse to language. In those moments, I see people connecting on a level beyond the physical. Yet I also understand and generally obey the social strictures on the language I use to describe my feelings about them. For instance, I would never, at least not in a gathering of men, use the words “beautiful” or “moving”.
The regular enactment of such beautiful interplay, especially when the stakes are high, presumably creates even stronger feelings in the players, and also between them, especially between those who play together frequently. At least sometimes, what these players feel for each other must be love, so why do we never hear them say so? And why are the words they choose to describe their feelings almost exclusively emotionally void cliches, such as “rapt”, “awesome”, “stoked”, “gutted”?
It matters that New Zealand men limit our expression when it comes to rugby, because we talk so much about rugby. The game and our discourse around it has, over 150 years, shaped the way we see ourselves, and the way we see ourselves is as people who play on through the pain and don’t whine about it, and who expect and demand victory and get pissed off when we don’t get it. Because we are not people who talk about beauty or meaning, and especially not love, we come to believe they’re not things we care about.
But we do care, and caring is good and healthy, and we’ll all be better off when we’re able to admit this to ourselves, and more particularly each other. It won’t be easy, but it will be a lot easier than losing to Scotland.
Greg Bruce is a feature writer for The New Zealand Herald’s weekend magazine Canvas, and the author of the book Rugby Head.