Earthquakes, Community, Rugby and Revolution

For rugby union fans the Super 15 competition is now getting interesting, and that interest as always is not only on the field.  Events this week ensured that we think about the game, its social context and meaning, and its reach into events far beyond those we might normally associate with it. 

In the playing context, theoretically any of nine teams can still make the final six playoff places.  The Chiefs from New Zealand are on top and clear but have three tough New Zealand teams to face in the final run.  The Stormers, Bulls and Sharks from South Africa are battling it out to gain the first place in their “conference” and thus have to play one game less in the finals series, but the Stormers have the easiest games in the run-in.  In Australia the Reds are making a late run to challenge the Brumbies in what has really been a miserable season for Australian franchises.

Complicating this is a break of almost a month in June as the wonderfully inept and opportunist International Rugby Board schedules three sets of internationals: the All Blacks versus Ireland, Australia against Wales, and South Africa against England.  All the top Super 15 managers will be worried by this.  By definition they have several players in the national sides, and if any of those are injured then their Super 15 chances are endangered.

For me the focus is on the Crusaders. (http://www.crusaders.co.nz/ )  After a poor start to the season by their standards, they came back into contention with some strong performances if marred by an inexplicable recent loss to the lowly Melbourne Rebels.  Now the Crusaders have three hard games coming up: the Highlanders next week then, after the break, the mercurial Hurricanes (Canes) from Wellington, the table-heading Chiefs before a final match against the hapless Western Force from Perth.

As things stand the Crusaders need to get into fourth position on the table in order to get a home ground advantage in the first of their playoffs because it is unlikely they will displace the Chiefs at the top.  If they do not achieve that, then the likelihood is they would have to play their first playoff against a South African team in South Africa, a very tall order.

I started to think about some of this because of reading what I thought was a very silly piece in The Australian by former Labor Party politician and Minister, Barry Cohen.  (http://www.theaustralian.com.au/sport/opinion/change-the-rules-of-the-game-they-play-in-heaven/story-e6frg7t6-1226366149153 ).  In a week when the rest of the Labor tribe was consumed by the unedifying Craig Thomson affair, Chris Bowen’s apparent dudding of Prime Minister Julia Gillard by giving mining billionaire Gina Rinehart the right to import labourers, and the resultant renewed speculation about when Gillard will be dumped, Cohen decided upon a spray at modern rugby in which he essentially suggested the game now had no meaning.

That started me thinking about the Crusaders.  They have been the dominant team in the Super 12/14/15 series from the beginning, winning several titles when coached by the inarticulate but brilliant Robbie Deans who now coaches the Wallabies (still a sore point in some New Zealand and Australian circles alike).  Of late, however, the Crusaders have come to represent much more.

During this week Christchurch, the Crusaders home base, was hit by yet another Richter Scale 5+ earthquake, just the latest in a series of tremors that have hit the city since the terrible events of just over a year ago when so many people lost their lives and the city was probably set back by 30-50 years.  Among other things the Crusaders home stadium was virtually destroyed.  Because of that, during the 2011 season they played every game away from home, yet still managed to make the final only to fall by the barest of margins to the Reds in Brisbane. 

This story was much more than about rugby, perhaps best symbolised by All Black and Crusaders captain Richie McCaw’s television ad that played before every World Cup match televised last year, the “please help rebuild rugby in Christchurch earthquake appeal”.  In some respects during that 2011 the Crusaders became New Zealand’s totemic team, symbolising what New Zealand could do even in the face of terrible trials.

Rugby in New Zealand has always been about social assertion in some form and still is: the Rugby World Cup (regained after a terrible 25 year wait) is held by a country with a population just under 4.5 million.  From the turn of the twentieth century this “small place big achiever in rugby” tone has carried New Zealand’s sense of identity and representation, and still means a great deal, especially so when the ABs (All Blacks) triumph over Australia in the Bledisloe Cup.  This sense of identity is also carried down into the Super 15 then further into the provincial competitions within New Zealand.  I have not lived in Canterbury since well back in the last century but I am still a “Canterbury” man, and for me the Crusaders mean Canterbury whether Barry Cohen thinks so or not.

This Crusader sensation, then, was about community, the very thing the silly Barry Cohen thinks has gone from the game because people do not associate with teams called “Crusaders”.  He must not have been to a game in the past few seasons.  Regrettably I have not seen many (as yet there are no games played in Amman, Damascus, Vientiane or Phnom Penh strangely enough), but those I have seen tell me something different, and especially so with the Crusaders.

That is not to say there are no issues, however, and a prime one for me with the Crusaders is precisely their name.  At every game the franchise has a set of horses and riders decked out in Crusaders gear as if they were again setting off for the “Holy Land” after the last failures of now over 700 years ago.  In this day and age of strained relations between the West and Islam, this is all a bit much for anyone who has read anything about the matter.  Since Edward Said’s monumental and influential Orientalism appeared in 1978, this sort of representation has sat squarely within the “Orientalist” tradition whereby the West’s depiction of the “Orient” was framed for its own purposes, rather than as an accurate rendition of reality. (http://www.english.emory.edu/Bahri/Orientalism.html ).   Ironically I started thinking about some of this way back in my student days at Canterbury University when the great J.J. Saunders talked with us about the Islamic side and interpretation of the Crusades, leading us to the magisterial work by the remarkable Sir Steven Runciman who in many ways began the correction of the “Orientalist” view.  (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/1372747/Sir-Steven-Runciman.html ).

The “Crusaders” of Christchurch, then, may be seen an anachronistic and possibly to some even offensive name.  That is so especially for me in a week when events in Syria, one of the Crusader sites in the Levant, continue to depress and sadden anyone who has been there.  What this chaos and conflict has done is to produce an almost “Orientalist” call for intervention, “good versus evil”, when even United nations leader Ban Ki-Moon acknowledges the presence in Syria of “established terrorist groups” (i.e. Al Qaeda and offshoots) and the “diffuse structure” (i.e. warring factions) of the opposition. (http://www.foreignpolicy.com/files/fp_uploaded_documents/120525_SGSyriareport.pdf ).     There is an eerie reminder of the Crusades and all their disasters in the calls for “intervention” by the West.

A team called the “Crusaders”, then, amidst all this, is a bit uncomfortable. This reminds us of the sort of struggles that have gone on in American sport as the “First Nation” peoples protested over names like the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians.  In the Super 15 the other reminder of this comes with the Chiefs, based in the Waikato that was the heartland of the Maori/New Zealand wars of the mid-nineteenth century.  With the rise of contemporary Maoritanga, however, it almost seems like the Chiefs name is a reassertion of first peoples’ sovereignty, a reappropriation of history almost.  In rugby there, then, the name is a reaffirmation of pride and substance, reinforced by the presence of players like Sonny Bill Williams.

While I support the Crusaders and their mission in the weeks to come, at the same time I will be thinking from rugby to a lot of other connections and meanings, and forgetting about Barry Cohen.

 

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