Friday, 9 September 2011

Embracing rugby the game, rejecting Rugby the culture

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.


Francesca B said...

I really enjoyed this post. When I was younger I was never, ever, interested in sports. In fact, I was 'sick' every thursday simply because the entire school was forced to play an hour of sport on those days. But as I have grown older I have been exposed to more sports and have suprised myself by enjoying watching rugby of all things. To be honest it scared me a little, I have never been a fan of the culture but I have become a fan of the game and I didn't know how that fit with my feminist politics. Anyway, I think a lot of my childhood disgust of sports was at least in part due to the apparent fact that girls don't play sports, girls can't be good at sports (I was terrified of trying and failing) and girls shouldn't like sports and so I am slowly trying to redress this. Seperating the culture from the game helps a lot

Anonymous said...


I enjoyed your insight too. I'm not from a rugby family so can't exactly relate, but I went to a school with the number 1 girls rugby team in NZ. My school memories of rugby were the girls constantly winning and being celebrated a lot in assemblies. I can't remember any male rugby players from school. Coming from a fairly backwards, semi rural town, I'm thanking this expensive RWC for bringing back those cool memories!

Brett Dale said...

Wont follow the world cup, and havent been a fan of the game for a long time.

For me, its the pure hate that some Union fans have for other sports, thru my teen years it was always the rugby fans that verbally abused me for liking soccer.

In my 20's it was always the rugby fan that verbally abuse me for liking Rugby league.

For the past 20 years it has always been the rugby fan that has verbally abuse me for liking basketball and american football.

Also a few years back, having a younger relative report a case of bullying at their school to the principal, only to be told by the principal, that its okay because the bully is a rugby player.

So enjoy the world cup to those who will watch it, I wont be one of them.

Anonymous said...

I can totally relate to this post, I grew up watching rugby, with a season pass watching the Lions and Hurricanes. It was part of my identity and love of sports growing up. It was a form of feminism for me saying that I am a women I can watch sport, participate in sport as well. I loved the thrill of it all- I was a girl and I could enjoy sport- and know just as much about it regardless of my sex. I was particularly passionate about another sport- football, and still am.

However as my teens came through I felt more and more guilty about my enjoyment for rugby that had so much obvious chavanism associated with it. I really struggled and still do with these contrasting positions on Rugby. In my second year of University I went to a test game at carisbrook. The sort of antics and the way that women were treated in that particular crowd was a major turning point to how I though about Rugby. It made me really angry at such a disgusting culture.

So I guess the question is to me and others like yourself is can we really enjoy a sport when its associated with so many negative parts of our culture? I struggle too look past it at the moment- but then I soo much enjoy football.. and If I was some where else in the world like England would where the same chavenism exist around football would I not be able to enjoy this passion of mine.

Julie said...

Thanks so much for the feedback, here and elsewhere, much appreciated. Glad I was able to strike a chord for others too.

I often think that a lot of New Zealanders have very negative experiences of rugby in their youth, because of the way young rugby players act, and are allowed to act by authority figures like school leaders, parents, social leaders in peer groups, etc. I was largely sheltered from this for a long time because I went to a single sex school for most of my teens, only changing to co-ed part way through my penultimate year.

I know many grown men, in their thirties, who are still angry about the way (some) rugby players at their school were given free passes to bully, cheat, and wag. That kind of enabling makes me mad too, not least because my own experiences, although at the time I didn't realise the reason the guys who tormented me were untouchable was because they were in the first XV.

And then there's the schism in our society the came to full roar in 1981. Some people will never go back to rugby because of that. Sport and politics, how anyone could deny they are linked after that, I do not understand.

Until very recently I hadn't thought much about the domestic violence aspect of Rugby Culture. The suggestion that the All Blacks adopt Women's Refuge, or a similar organisation, as a key charity is fantastic. Even if only half the effort that goes into endorsing a sponsor, that would make a big impact, and could be the needed first step to change the negative trappings.

DPF:TLDR said...

"I know many grown men, in their thirties, who are still angry about the way (some) rugby players at their school were given free passes to bully, cheat, and wag."


As one of those men I find it really difficult to see rugby the game as separate from rugby culture in the way you have in this post.

Julie said...

I guess ultimately I haven't entirely been able to separate them in my head, and hence the fact I can't name five All Blacks these days, and I don't follow it anymore. But I know others who can manage that split happily, who really can embrace the game and reject the culture. I don't think it's impossible.

SMSD said...

Good post Julie.

The thing that annoys me about rugby culture is the way the media and the NZRU treat it as if it is the most important thing in the world, and as if every New Zealander has to be a rugby fanatic.

They can't just see it as a game that people might watch or play for fun.

And Brett, I like your point about the hostility of some rugby fans. It is as if rugby has to be the only game anyone enjoys.

I don't particularly like rugby, I think the average game of league is more enjoyable, but to me it is the fanaticism, and the corporate hype that is truly stomach churning.

Anonymous said...

I found this blog while googling to find feminist comments about the RWC. I grew up on the North Shore supporting North Harbour too (acutally I would have only been a year ahead of you at school) and while I wasn't interested in rugby at primary school, it was something I enjoyed watching as a teen and when I was at uni. I remember going to a couple of games at Onewa too! For me it was nice to have something I could do with my dad, and also gave me something to talk about to guys (I was shy! Debating the merits of various rugby or cricket players made it easier to relate to boys).

Then in my early 20s I just got too busy to follow rugby, plus I met my husband who watches league not rugby, and I now have next to no interest in the game.

I am now finding it uncomfortable that an exclusively male tournament is getting so much attention and government funds. Hence my googling, cos I wanted to see if it irritated other people or just me! I realise its a professional sport and all about money, but still there is something not right with so much hype over a sport which has absolutely no role for women other than as a WAG. It might be different if the women'ts tournament was on at the same time - but it isn't.

And I am particularly uncomfortable that my five year old daughter's class is spending all term focussing on the RWC. What is it teaching young girls when they have to look at a culture/sport where the girl's role is to look pretty and have their photo taken so that online newspapers can have galleries of WAGS for men to compare? (happily, she doesn't know about WAGS yet, but thats not the point!). I think that schools actively encouraging the hero-worship of rugby players is wrong - or at least should be balanced by encouraging admiration of academics (yeah, right).

I asked my daughter this morning what she thought about rugby and she just said "its a bit too boyish for me". Thank god.

Great blog,

Rageaholic said...

I just wish people would remember that NZ has won the women's rugby world cup four times!
The problem I have with rugby is mostly that we ONLY celebrate the All Blacks successes, rather than the Black Ferns as well.

Tamara said...

Interesting comments Jenny and Rageaholic. I was watching te opening ceremony with my 4yo daughter and she asked why the child in it was a boy. I explained that it was because it is the men's competition. Not the women's world cup. She asked whether the women's one would be on in NZ after this one. I had to say no and that I didn't know when the women's one would be on here at all! Nice feeling of exclusion there.

Eileen Joy said...

Thanks for your post Julie :) if only I had seen this before making my own post (, I would have happily linked them up!! I grew up disliking rugby intensely, I've never had a stage where I liked it, but I appreciate many have. It's hard to stand out against the dominant culture, but women like you (and myself) are used to it I guess!

I've watched the Hand Mirror with interest for a while now, you do a great job! I only wish you had a Hand Mirror FB page, I spend most of my time on FB!! Arohanui xxx

anthea said...

Eileen - we actually do have a FB group -!/group.php?gid=30496115118 - but it occurs to me that given how Facebook has changed setting up a replacement page may be a good plan. Shall discuss!