When I wore a younger man’s clothes I dabbled with playing rugby. For most of my childhood I’d played football, or soccer, as Kiwis call it. I had my masculinity attacked. Other kids hassled me and mockingly asked if I kissed and hugged the other players, as that’s what they saw when they watched English football games – players all over each other when a goal was scored. Rugby was different and I thought I should have a crack at it and see what the fuss was all about.
I played in a very good team in Christchurch and I always felt like the odd one out. Football was about the fear of other player’s skills. Rugby initiated me to the fear of other players’ size and fearsome tackling and running. It was a very new world to line up against 15 other blokes and hope you would stack up, not let anyone down, or, more importantly, not get creamed. Over two seasons I developed as a player, fell in love with the game and learned to respect those who played it at higher levels – provincial and our national icons, the All Blacks.
I can recall games at Lancaster Park at the World Cup in 1987 on the old terraces. A massive crowd yelling and screaming. But one thing more than anything else grabbed my attention. Whenever Grant Fox lined up a kick or John Kirwan got the ball, a slow chorus of boos would drown out the usual hubbub. As most New Zealanders know, provincial tribalism is strong and perhaps nowhere is it more rife and more visible than in Canterbury. But this made no sense to me, All Blacks were being booed, while wearing the black shirt, only because they were Auckland players. It didn’t make sense to me then, and over the years, I have always been a little bit embarrassed by how some fans, and rugby writers, talk about our national team.
So, fast forward to last Saturday. The All Blacks playing Argentina in Sydney and the men in Black lose 25-15. Argentina, to a man, play a blinder and win against a team they have never beat in their playing history. What follows is an exercise in the poorest form of fandom and journalism you could imagine. Ian Foster should be sacked. Sam Cane isn’t good enough to be captain. The team is a joke and it’s time to make wholesale changes.
To put all of that in perspective. The All Blacks are one of the most respected teams in world sport and Ian Foster has been in charge for five games – with the Bledisloe Cup already tucked away in the trophy cabinet. Sure, personally I would rather Scott Robertson had been given the top job – only because i still have one of my Cantabrian eyes slightly closed but what do I know about actually coaching a team at elite national level? Not much and I am in the company of millions of other Kiwis, though far too many of these armchair critics seemingly know more about the game, while they puff on the way back from the fridge with another cold brew in their hands.
In professional sport there are very few teams, managers, coaches, or players, that are consistently great. Those that are stand out but one thing that they all have in common is they started slow, results didn’t always go their way but they worked, evolved and learned to swat away the jibes and put downs. Manchester United’s most acclaimed manager, and perhaps the most successful in English football was one or two bad results away from being sacked after a few seasons of poor to middling form. Imagine if Alex Ferguson had not been given the time to become the powerhouse that he was, developing not one, but three world class teams over his tenure at Old Trafford and a huge amount of domestic and European titles?
I suggest it would be a novel and helpful notion for All Blacks’ fans and a slice of our rugby media to learn a bit of patience, and more importantly to realise that if you can’t support your team when they are losing, then don’t bother when they’re winning either. Right now we have a very new management and coaching team that I firmly believe will get better and better. It’s the way we have done it for many, many decades.
And by the way – well done Argentina – that’s a hell of a result!