In 1987 I was in Standard 4 at Glenfield Primary School, on Auckland's North Shore. I was obsessed with rugby.
Most kids at my school were - girls and boys alike. We had our own mini World Cup at school, with a mixture of kids on each team in terms of age, size, ability and gender. It was a very similar game to what later became popular as touch rugby. I was captain of the Irish team and the hooker, because no one else wanted to do that and it seems the good leader thing to take what people seemed to view as the crappest position. Everyone wanted to wear number 9, and be the next David Kirk. The hero worship of Kirk only increased after that plucky try in the final, and the immortal picture of him with the hallowed* Webb Ellis Cup and his black eye and everything. Such a shame, although utterly unsurprising, that he turned out to be a Tory.
My parents were at that game, against France at Eden Park, and I was pretty peeved, for a very long time, that they had not spent the $50 to get me a ticket on the Terraces too. Ireland was knocked out early on too, so we never played more than one match in the school tournament.
In my early teens I covered a wall of my bedroom with rugby pictures and paraphenalia. There were tickets from games, mostly at Onewa, pictures of players I thought were particularly talented (Frank Bunce, Walter Little, a young Andrew Mehrtens, Eric Rush, Terry Wright), and even a tea towel with all the rugby jerseys of the different provinces on it. My dad and I used to go to games together, usually Bledisloe or Ranfurly Shield matches, and I often went to Harbour games with a friend's dad. The aim of my young life was to see North Harbour win the NPC at Onewa (whilst preferably retaining the Log of Wood). My heart was broken at that awful final in 1994, Harbour losing all discipline, the crowd drunk and violent, and Auckland's captain, Zinzan Brooke, far from gracious in victory.
That was the beginning of the end of my love affair with rugby. In the mud at Onewa, knowing how hard I had worked to get a ticket, and noticing how most of the people there were just getting boozed and not even watching the match, disillusionment started to seep in around the edges. I think that was probably the first time I really noticed the culture around rugby and consciously made the connection with the game itself.
I was at a co-ed school then, in seventh form, and had had some trouble from a couple of first XV players the previous year, but it appeared that they were untouchable because of their rugby-related status. I was outraged in 1993 when the First XV boys were given time off school to see the Lions tour; where was the opportunity for rugby-mad girls to go? And when was the top netball team supported to see the Silver Ferns play?
All of this stuff was coming together in my mind, and by the time I was in second year at university, 1996, my interest was waning. When Super Rugby came on the scene around that time and my Harbour players ended up in the Waikato Chiefs even my staunch parochial connection with my team began to dissolve. My Harbour scarf, cherished and worn constantly through the season, went missing a year or so later, stolen by a student politics adversary I have long suspected. Its loss was grieved at the time, but it was a symbol of the beginning of the end of the end of the love affair that was Rugby & Me.
Now I can no longer entirely divorce my rugby-watching from many of the problematic aspects of rugby culture. Coley has written a powerful post about one aspect of that, the violence against women that, for her, is part of it all. And while I think it is possible to still enjoy the sport of something that has so much macho bullshit attached to it, all of this has hampered my ability to really follow the game. I probably couldn't name five All Blacks now, a far cry from the days when I would write out whole NPC teams from memory when I was bored in Biology.
I'll watch the opening ceremony tonight, for the history of the moment and the pageantry of the spectacle, and I'll watch some of the games too. I'm not really picking a team to support. I have too much cynicism about how the players are pumped up into modern gods to feel comfortable cheering for anyone. Maybe there will be a brave, largely amateur side from a country without our rugby culture that appeals?
I don't judge anyone a Bad Feminist for watching, for enjoying, for feeling differently about this from me. I respect that you may embrace the Rugby World Cup and festoon your car with flags. I admit to feeling the sense of excitement as I move around Auckland, and I do rather like it. Let's just accept that many things are fraught for feminists because we live in a patriarchal society, and you can cheer on the All Blacks, and I will sing along to wife-beater John Denver's songs, and that's all ok, as long as we don't embrace the problematic bits too.
I hope that Rugby the culture isn't the winner on any day throughout this tournament, or beyond.
* But then actually brand new to rugby.
** Seriously lousy - they mostly played other school's second XVs and didn't win much.