When I was living in London and working in restaurants, I got asked pretty much on a daily basis where I was from – the majority of the time people would ask where I was from in Australia, but that’s a whole other topic I’m not going to delve into today.
After telling them I was from New Zealand, their answer would invariably go in one of three directions: The All Blacks, Lord of the Rings, or their rabid love of Aotearoa after a three week holiday spent in a Juicy van, where they drove around the South Island, twice. But usually, it was rugby. And here’s the thing. Rugby doesn’t interest me. Or the All Blacks. In fact, the ABs interest me less than rugby itself if that’s possible. I’d rather not have to watch it and I have no idea what the fuck any of them are doing when they grope each other in a crabby huddle. Or when they’re passing backwards then jumping over each other like gazelles injected with steroids.
Removing all cultural and emotive context, I don’t take any issue with the mechanics of a game played on a field by a bunch of muddy grunters with busy hands. But I’ve found over the years that it’s pretty fucking hard to remove emotion from conversations about rugby, with my fellow country people, and with those who brought it up overseas. I recall one customer in London in particular, who physically recoiled when I told him I didn’t watch or like rugby and then said in a tone like I’d defecated onto his chilli salt squid, “What kind of a Kiwi are you?”
I was about 7 when I first experienced team sports. The teacher gathered us outside on the field and told us to get into three groups depending on whether we wanted to play rugby, netball or hockey. I assumed that all the other kids had never heard these words before either:
Who said when to the hockey-now what?
This was to be my first sports faux-pas. Like a bevvy of well-trained chirpy otters, the majority of my classmates skipped over to their game of choice while I looked on with mounting panic. Clearly, I was missing a trick.
It was a small country school just out of Whangarei in 1983 so the split was pretty traditional. The boys headed off to ruggers, the girls to netball and a few stragglers like me stood around smiling nervously at each other. We all got assigned to hockey.
For the next few months, we’d go to the big green fields in town to play against other schools. I’d stand as far out to the side as I could possibly manage next to the white liney thing, holding my hockey stick out in front me with both hands like a demented wizard. Totally paralyzed with fear that the ball would come my way. When it did I’d make an attempt to stab at it with my stick, never entirely confident about the direction I was aiming for. It didn’t occur to me to ask someone about the rules of the game. I’ve always thought it was because I was a fairly anxious kid and didn’t want my peers to know that I was clueless. But in recent years I’ve come to another conclusion: I truly just didn’t give a shit about how to play. Not then, or now.
[I’ve also run this past my family and both my parents and older sister were into team sports so it’s not like I was starved of this vital information by way of familial anti-sport bias]
My antipathy towards team sports followed me all the way through my schooling years and into adulthood. I definitely did after school activities, they just happened to be of the type that didn’t involve teammates and complicated rules. Like gymnastics, cross country running, and ballet (go figure??).
But rugby was the sport that became the hardest to ignore, especially as an adult. All those little ball kickers from primary school grew up playing it, talking about it and watching it, all to eventually kneel at the hallowed altar of the mighty ABs. These days, most of my friends watch rugby, and even mates that don’t, still profess to tune into the world cup when it rolls around. I’m told we win all the fucking time so that must be nice.
And there are definite challenges involved in wading against the hegemony of rugby culture in New Zealand. I often feel like I’m standing outside a party with my face pressed against the steamy window, as the majority of the country takes part in a discourse that means nothing to me. Headlines from our mainstream news outlets regularly use the All Blacks as metaphorical definers of our heart, our heritage, of what we stand for as ‘kiwis’. But I don’t see myself in this scenario. Maybe I’m overplaying my hand a little but this is what it feels like for someone who doesn’t want to be part of the rugby conversation. Don’t get me wrong, this is not some poorly disguised plea for someone to take pity on me, scoop me up and take me to the ball game. Faaaark no. It’s more about identity I guess, and the culturally specific identifiers that I would list if I was asked that question today; what sort of a kiwi are you?
I’m the sort of kiwi who loves watching equestrian on TV if I had to choose a sport, going on road trips around the North Island, Wellington, the ocean, New Zealand writers, New Zealand subject experts and academics and our nuclear-free status.
Shit like that.