Sunday, September 11, 2011

From party politics to Party Central

Back in 1987 I watched the first game of the first Rugby World Cup with my father at Eden Park. We arrived late, because Dad had only decided on the day to go to the game, and because we'd made a detour to drop my mother on Queen Street to do a spot of shopping.

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?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those youths are riding a car dangerously?

Is this an offence?

4:30 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes. They were taken away and shot soon after that picture.

(Very harsh road laws apply in NZ.)

8:20 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know about Sonny Bill but you could not be more wrong about Ma'a Nonu. He remains a staunch club supporter and is seen around town all the time. Ditto Jerry Collins when he lived here. It's the same with Piri Weepu and plenty of others. Maybe a touch more empirical knowledge might improve your theorising.

I suspect one of the reasons why rugby remains so popular is precisely because the players remain so close to the community even if they cannot turn out for the club every weekend. Two of the biggest factors in reducing the influence and community engagement of rugby clubs are the changes in attitudes and laws relating to drinking and driving.

This is no doubt a net positive but it has also had a negative unintended impact.

11:01 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

You're fair enough to query my empirical knowledge of rugger, anon - I did follow the game closely as a lad, cheering on the hapless (at least when it came to Ranfurly Shield challenges) Counties team, but my interest waned, and even in the '80s cricket was my main sport.

But would it be too controversial to say that Nonu has been condemned by some rugby fans as a prima dona - his falling out with Wellington management and his admission that he wears (or used to wear) makeup didn't endear him to some folk, did they? And how often do any of the All Blacks turn out for their clubs? Even if they want to, they simply don't have the chance to do so much any more, do they (the same goes for Kiwi cricketers, of course)? In his auto/biography Colin Meads says that a player's loyalty should always go first and foremost to his local club, even if he makes the All Blacks. It was the local club which had created him, and could support him in difficult times. Back in the days of amateurism Meads' statement was not sentimental rhetoric.

11:15 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

those who criticise nonu...are racist?

11:21 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Maps - a lot of the guys I used to work with were members of Counties Manukau. In fact I used to argue with some of them about the 1981 tour (before and after).

They were mostly good fellows but didn't have my subtlety of intellect....

Just joking. No, they were Mostly good blokes... They didn't like or agree with my views but no one was very "angry" that I had them they just thought I was mad...

They were probably right!

Rugby was just about every thing for them. But in the late 70s I got hooked on cricket myself for quite some years...

1:19 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unfortunatly I wish we had stayed at home. we went down to the Viaduct to see the Waka's come in, this was a Fantastic experience! the Maori and Pacific culture did us Proud! it was crowded but hey .. its the opening right so no worries there, and everyone was positive and having a GREAT time, all good so far, the Street Haka's were Great too! things were looking good, then well hmm ok screens not working ? from 5:30 is till the fire works (8:00).. there was noting to keep the crowds that could not make it through the crush to party central entertained, well ok we had audio but the giant on-screen entertainment was broken (2 - 3 screens were out). the fireworks would have been nice, IF we could see the properly, (could have been 50 - 100 meters higher) Over all not a great night, for the family should have stayed at home to watch it on TV

8:58 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are some really negative people in this country..... Shut ya gobs and leave the rest of us to enjoy it. If ya moaning about it all being up in Auckland get off ya lazy backsides and get there or save up enough leave / money in advance to do it. Hopefully the opening ceremony is awesome and the AB's go well. May not have another chance to host an event on this scale. Back the AB's all the way but I'm starting to get nervous about those Aussies!

9:04 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"But would it be too controversial to say that Nonu has been condemned by some rugby fans as a prima dona"

No doubt about that, Scott, but I think the prima donna label is a common tag fans have had for players who have been seen as too flamboyant or too individual in both the amateur and professional days. There is a programme called Heartland rugby on sky which shows club rugby from around the country. Whenever I have seen it I am struck by how good the quality of amateur play still is and how the settings still look like the rugby clubs I grew up with. The age range of the players in the big urban senior club competitions has narrowed because the demands are so great on players these days that few older guys can spare the time to play at that level. In rural areas the club's demands are tempered by the supply of players. Demand too much and they dont get the players.

9:55 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

I was partly thinking about John Roughan's article about the decline of local rugby in the Saturday Herald, anon - did you see it? I've watched the Heartland rugby programme, too - I know this sounds perverse, but I quite like it when the players are obviously out of shape, or drop the ball at inappropriate times. I just like the idea that the 'play for fun' attitude has survived at grassroots level in sports like rugby and cricket. These days even school teams seem ostentatiously professional in their attitude.

Richard: back when I went along to Puke stadium the team was just plain old Counties, not Counties-Manukau! I think the club is probably stronger with the addition of Manukau, but in these days of the slite 'Super' competition at the start of the season the club just doesn't have the profile it enjoyed in the
'80s. It gets to play in the national provincial championship, sure, but that comes at the end of the season, when everyone is sick of rugby...

11:08 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is it forbidden to poke fun at the mighty McCahon?

11:30 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, I hadn't seen the Roughan article but will look it out.

Is your Gt Sth Rd saga going to include Huntly? I would have thought it would be very interesting for someone of your interests. It used to be dominated by underground miners - mostly from the North of England - and Waahi Pa. The farming hinterland was far less of an influence. When I was a kid it had three league clubs and a soccer club, all of them contributing NZ representatives. Rugby was very much the third sport. At school we played all three, a great experience.

1:32 pm  
Anonymous SPGB - party of solid rock said...

This week in 1936 saw the start of the Spanish Civil War. The Socialist Party position then and now is opposition to all of capitalism's wars:

"Having no quarrel with the working class of any country, we extend to our fellow workers the expression of our goodwill and socialist fraternity, and pledge ourselves to the work for the overthrow of capitalism and triumph of Socialism." (August 25th 1914)

3:09 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Maps. Yes it was Counties when I knew those blokes...about 1970s to 1980s. Hard case blokes they were...

I was based at Wiri Depot of the then Post Office (now Telecom or Chorus etc.)

4:32 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

"Anonymous said...

Is it forbidden to poke fun at the mighty McCahon? "

McCahon is God. Rugby is our religion it is true. But McCahon is God.

If you make fun of Collin you will be destroyed by a terrible blast of lightening. But you can say anything (good or bad) about Rugby as religion is going out of fashion.

4:37 pm  
Blogger julianz said...

Hmmm. "All Blacks fans tend to gnash their teeth or jeer when the opposition scores"? Granted I've only seen the All Blacks play live 4 or 5 times, but that has simply never happened in my experience. Hell, against Wales in 2003 the NZ supporters were singing along with the Welshmen!

5:18 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Hi anon,

the Great South Road seems to be a bit like the Amazon: how far it stretches appears a matter of definition, as much as simple measurement. Some people claim that the 'real' road ends in Pokeno, which was certainly true in 1863, as that was the last stop before the border of the Waikato Kingdom; other folks insist that the road runs all the way to Wellington.

I'm a huge fan of Huntly, and have talked about the marvels of the place often on this blog, much to the displeasure of certain readers!
The whole notion of 'anti-travel downunder' - of exploring the unscenic blots on the picturesque New Zealand landscape beloved of tourism promoters and sentimetal politicians - probably began, for me at least, with a trip Brett Cross and I made to Huntly a few years ago:
Jack Ross used that short and rather tentative text in the travl writing course he teaches up at Massey, and later I spoke to his students about the delights of Huntly:
Do you fancy appearing on camera in Huntly?

10:04 am  
Anonymous AHD said...

"other folks insist that the road runs all the way to Wellington."

Other folks note that the road south of Christchurch is called the 'Main South Road'. It may not be 'great', but it is 'main' -- I guess that could apply to Christchurch more generally actually.

(The part between Picton and Christchurch is mostly whales and seals anyway.)

10:59 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


11:46 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"(The part between Picton and Christchurch is mostly whales and seals anyway.)"

Tell that to the people of Blenheim and Kaikoura!


1:11 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

A bit of South Canterbury national chauvinism from comrade AHD?

I must admit though that, as an Aucklander, I was amazed by how thinly populated the coast between Christchurch and Kaikoura seemed...

2:18 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

As far as I know, the last bit of tarseal named The Great South Road runs for a few hundred metres just south of Ohaupo, the village on the putkirts of Hamilton raised in 1865 by the soldier-settlers who had come from Puhoi, and before that from Bohemia...

2:20 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you fancy appearing on camera in Huntly?

If that is addressed to me, I would love to but I live an awfully long way away from Huntly these days.

Davies Park in Huntly was a great league ground and I can recall watching Gt Britain and Australian teams play there against Waikato rep teams. Of the three local league clubs, Huntly South, United and Taniwharau, the first two were strong in the 50s and 60s while Taniwharau, the wholly Maori team, was very weak. These days Taniwharau is the only one of the three in the premier competition and United is defunct. Ngaruawahia now has two teams compared with one and Hamilton four compared to one.

The town's social history is very interesting and it was the site of one of our worst mine disasters, at Ralphs's mine. The town hall/picture theatre/library since demolished was built as a memorial to the 43 who died.

2:40 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

lol this is all for all you NINNIES

10:10 pm  
Anonymous Ryan Bodman said...

An argument could be made that the professionalisation of the game has contributed to the enthusiasm of Pacific Island communities to the world cup. Most of the Tongan, Fijian and Samoan players play professional rugby in Europe, and return home to play national rugby for their respective underfunded rugby unions. As a result, the quality of their play has increased markedly and they are no longer teams to be dismissed in pool play.
Cheers, Ryan.

7:57 am  
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9:16 pm  

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