From party politics to Party Central
We parked close to the ground, paid thirty dollars - twenty dollars for Dad, ten for me - pushed through the creaking turnstiles in the gloom underneath the old concrete terraces, and emerged into the light to find the All Blacks defending an early Italian sortie in a front of a very modest crowd. Being late, I missed the World Cup opening ceremony, which lasted half an hour or so and was apparently dominated by marching girls.
Times have changed, haven't they?
Chris Trotter recently blogged about the change in Kiwi politics during the quarter century since the fourth Labour government began the radical restructuring of our economy. Back in the 1970s and early '80s we were a nation of political activists: we joined political parties in huge numbers, formed committees and campaigns in response to every new political issue, and regularly staged political strikes. Today, Chris notes mournfully, we treat politics as a spectator sport, cheering or jeering as gladiators like Key or Goff make or take big hits. Politics is something we consume, not something we create.
Chris' points are indisputable, but we might complement them by observing that sport, as well as politics, has changed over the past quarter century. Back in 1987, New Zealand rugby was organised like an old-fashioned mass membership political party.
Just as the leaders of the old National and Labour parties used to sit on top of a massive structure that began with grassroots local branches, passed through regional councils, and then took in full-time staffers and elected MPs, so both the playing and administrative elites of New Zealand rugby were nourished by and answerable to a complicated network of local clubs and committees.
Just as a Prime Minister like Muldoon or Kirk occasionally had to drop into local party branch meetings, and listen with at least a pretense of concern to the complaints or advice of the retired sergeant or union delegate who did leaflet drops in the rain at election time, so the bosses of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union had to drop into the clubhouse at Taumaranui or Drury for a few beers every now and then. All Blacks like Andy Dalton and John Kirwan might have been superstars, but they still turned out regularly on poorly-drained pitches for local club teams, alongside blokes with beer bellies and dodgy ankles.
Over the past quarter century the professionalisation and commercialisation of rugby has proceeded alongside the globalisation of New Zealand's economy. Just as popular participation in politics has declined, as more and Kiwis come to doubt the ability of a weakened state to act to improve their lives, so involvement with grassroots rugby has declined, as young fans of the game realise that superstars like Sonny Bill Williams and Ma'a Nonu are more likely to be found partying in a nightclub in the South of France than tucking into a mince pie and downing a beer at the local rugby club in Waiuku or Wainuiomata. The sheer otherworldiness of the All Blacks, in the era of vast salaries and short-term contracts and rides on private jets, continually undermines grassroots rugby in this country.
Interest in rugby remains vast in this country, but with the decline of the old infrastructure of clubs and provincial unions fans have to be organised in new ways.
The 'Party Zones' which have been set up in New Zealand's big cities are designed to soak up a few of the hundreds of thousands of fans who can't afford World Cup ticket prices and don't belong to a rugby club. I visited Auckland's Party Zone yesterday afternoon, and was impressed by how perfectly it reproduced the symbolic order of twenty-first century New Zealand.
Located on Auckland's waterfont, the 'Party Central' zone is billed as 'a place for the fans', but it can only be entered through a series metal gates where courteous but thorough security guards examine bags and question their owners. A series of large screens provide Party Zoners with live coverage of games, but there are no chairs or benches where audiences might make thesmelves comfortable. The only way to sit down and watch the action is to enter a bar or cafe, and spend money. The only beer fans can enjoy is Heineken, and a small plastic glass of the stuff costs seven dollars and fifty cents.
Inside 'The Cloud', a huge metal and glass tent which backs onto the rubbish-strewn waters of the inner Waitemata harbour, a series of stalls advertise a simulacrum of New Zealand to World Cup tourists, showing mountains covered in snow as thick and smooth as ice cream, and alpine lakes coloured light blue, like warm tropical seas. A bar near the far end of The Cloud ostentatiously rips off one of Colin McCahon's late religious paintings. Sick, drunk, and close to despair, McCahon painted I AM in huge shaky letters on a canvas, and left audiences to decide whether he was speaking in the voice of a deity suddenly revealing itself or else merely asserting his own lonely and tenuous existence. The bar in The Cloud takes McCahon's lettering and declares I AM ON THE GUEST LIST.
Auckland's Party Central symbolises the paranoia, uber-commercialism, and cocky philistinism of twenty-first century urban New Zealand, but it is not a joyless place. Even in these inauspicious surroundings, some rugby fans manage to have a good time. When I visited the Zone yesterday, the game between Namibia and Fiji was being beamed in live from Rotorua, and fans with ties to both countries had gathered in front of the big screens. They may have been forced to sit or stand uncomfortably on the tarseal of the waterfont, and they may not have been able to afford to get drunk on tiny glasses of Heineken, but they whooped and waved flags and chatted excitedly anyway.
Like the Tongan fans who celebrated wildly after losing the opening game of this year's Cup, the fans from Auckland's Fijian and Namibian communities seem to have a lightness of spirit which contrasts with the white knuckle mentality of too many All Blacks supporters. All Blacks fans tend to gnash their teeth or jeer when the opposition scores; the Fijians and the Namibians didn't even stop smiling. It is the supporters of Tonga and the other Pacific Island nations who have enlivened the build up to and the first days of the Cup. While neurotic All Blacks fans have plagued sports talkback shows and internet fora with their premonitions of doom and their pre-emptive attacks on Graham Henry, members of island communities have taken to the streets waving flags and partying. Could it be that the unconditional support that these peoples give to their teams, and the pleasure that they take even in losing, are somehow related to the fact that rugby has not, in their countries, undergone the commercialisation seen in recent decades in New Zealand, and rugby fans have not been distanced and alienated from the men who play in their name?