Smoko: Learning from amateur rugby

I have two early memories of what I wanted to be. At about 4, I was desperate to become a carpenter.

I pleaded with my mum and dad for a carpentry set. I've no idea where that idea came from, although my father recalls that I did traipse round after him on the farm asking to borrow the "sharpin-shyers" - which apparently translated as "fencing pliers".

I tried desperately to hide my disappointment when given a set of pictorial encyclopedias instead.

My other ambition was to play footie. I don't know where that came from either, although I do recall being transported into the privileged, ritualistic realms of "the grown-ups": being allowed to stay up to listen to an All Blacks test over the "wireless" in the small hours of the morning.

Rugged up and huddled round the crackling set, cocoa and biscuits in hand, the pungent, hoppy aroma of beer wafting around us, it was an unforgettable initiation for an impressionable lad in shortie pyjamas.

To be a proper player, of course, one needed a ball. So there were pleas on the next birthday for the brown-yellow laced and pumped up pigskin globe that I had admired, nay, practically worshipped, in the sports shop just along from the barbers on Palmerston St, the main drag of Westport.

I still recall the elation when, on being led into the living room at my grandparents' house, I saw that very ball on the mantelpiece.

And how I grabbed it with both hands and raced outside whooping with glee to christen it with a raking, worm-ducking touch-finder into the garage wall.

It was the real deal. And I was not so young that its cost escaped me: we weren't on the breadline, but with four of us under seven and my dad milking the cows at either end of a full day's teaching at the local high school, it would have been a big call.

That day, my dad showed me how to rub mutton fat into the leather to protect it against the weather. And I watched closely as he used the tip of a red-hot poker to sear my initials dot-by-dot on to its smooth, perfect skin. From that time on, I was hooked.

My devotion to the sport was not about the aesthetics of the game itself - some would say that is an oxymoron - nor was it necessarily about winning (Buller, my first team, was never much of a safe bet).

Rather it was about rites of passage, a sense of belonging to a community - the school, the club, the team - of like-minded individuals whose shared enthusiasm and passion were powerful, invisible bonds; it was about affirmation, and later, as skills developed, about prowess, fresh air, and a beer in the clubrooms afterwards.

We played for fun; those who were more serious, and better at it, went on to provincial "duty", playing for the honour and the prestige. Money did not come into it.

It is, of course, trite to suggest that money - professionalism, if you like - is the sole cause of the Otago Rugby Football Union's problems, but it, or more precisely its stewardship, has a lot to answer for.

It becomes increasingly evident that the evolution from an amateur game to a professional sport has not been managed with acuity and vision, nor an understanding of how the diversification of society, the changing nature of social pressures and patterns, the financial realities for modern families, the demands on players themselves, would impact on the modern game.

If modern provincial rugby in this country has missed the expertise of clever and conservative accountants, it has sorely lacked the counsel of a sympathetic sociologist or two, to contextualise and explain the changes taking place outside the sporting arenas and dimly lit, inward-looking clubrooms; and along with the accountants, to help furnish a realistic future for it.

I know from younger friends and colleagues who have sports-mad offspring that the enthusiasms of my own childhood still burn bright; and at a strictly amateur level, the game is in good health, maintained by volunteer coaches, referees, fans and supporters, much as it always was.

Top rugby and its administrators now need to figure out how to reconnect with that, to nurture it, sustain it and feed off it once more; and that this needs to be an essential part of any rescue package or reconfiguration of the once proud Otago union.

 - Simon Cunliffe is deputy editor (news) at the Otago Daily Times.




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