Helping rugby shed its old skin

Anna Rawhiti-Connell used to be anti-rugby but now sits on a provincial rugby union board and treasures the social, cultural and political aspects of the modern sport.

Over the past two months, several people have asked me if my Twitter account has been hacked. A mate told me she was having difficulty reading some of my latest tweets and imagining them coming from me. ‘You’ve changed’, friends and former colleagues have said while giving me the side eye.

This widespread cognitive dissonance is because I’ve been talking about rugby. I’ve been watching rugby. I’ve been reading about rugby. I’ve been nervous about rugby. I’ve really bloody cared about rugby. This doesn’t make me unique on its own, especially over the past couple of months, but I’ve staked a bit of my identity on being anti-rugby in the past and my conversion to rugby fan has been Damascene to some.

I didn’t grow up in an ‘anti-rugby’ household. We got up early or stayed up late to watch Rugby World Cups and I had an Otago rugby poster on my wall as a teenager. I remember going down to Rugby Park in Hamilton to see the Waikato team come home with the ‘Log o Wood’ after ending Auckland's record eight-year reign as Ranfurly Shield holders in 1993.

I told that story when I interviewed for a board seat with the Waikato Rugby Union last year. I was also honest about not knowing huge amounts about the contemporary game, instead pitching it as a strength. ‘Rugby’ I said ‘is not competing with other sports for people’s hearts, minds and attention. It’s competing with basically anything else people do with their time and their dollar. That’s something I understand.’ It’s an insight you gain really quickly when you work in the arts, as I had done for six years. Fortunately the appointments committee seemed to appreciate the other skills I brought to the table and I’ve been a proud member of the WRU board since June 2018.

I put my hand up for that role because I was asked to, but I properly entertained the idea because I was encouraged by what I saw as rugby trying to shed a bit of its old skin. Like it or not, rugby, in this country, reaches deep. At all levels of the game. It is culturally and socially enmeshed – woven tight into our communities. Rugby can represent and effect powerful good. With great power comes great responsibility and that felt like something that was worth being in service to.

I’d also slowly been shedding an identity that was defined by cool indifference and cynicism towards all things hegemonic and ‘mainstream’. It was something that happened in my 20s, perhaps as a result of an arts education. It also took a bit of age to realise that while I didn’t have to embrace everything with zeal, deliberately being anti something because a lot of other people are into it is a stupid way to live your life.

My rejection of rugby for all those years wasn’t just about maintaining my anti-establishment cool. Like a lot of New Zealanders, there were elements of the sport that were ugly and unhealthy - not just to the people directly impacted by what seemed like culturally entrenched behaviour, but by its strong influence in defining masculinity in New Zealand. What wasn’t said and done was often a more powerful signal than what was. For me, for a long time, rugby was a stifling, dominating cultural presence that represented old and dangerous ideas.

New Zealand Rugby acknowledged a lot of this in their commissioning of the Respect and Responsibility Review which was published in September 2017 stating:

‘Events prior to and in 2016 began to undermine rugby’s place and contribution, with issues that no longer reflected contemporary New Zealand’s values and expected behaviours. These issues were of concern to people within the rugby family and the wider community.’

I’ve had the fortune to witness some of the cultural shifts in rugby following that review as a provincial union director, but I think it’s visible to those who don’t have that kind of proximity, especially over the course of this year’s World Cup.

While some commentators would prefer that we continue to regard the All Blacks as stoic, mindless, gladiatorial automatons who win or lose, and, based on the result, either deserve praise or a public flogging, much of the commentary about this World Cup has focused on off-field moments and behaviours. Things that used to be unsaid by All Blacks have been said. Coach Steve Hansen talked about vulnerability and mental health. Captain Kieran Read put things in perspective after their semi-final loss to England by talking about birthday cards from his kids. TJ Perenara used his speech at the awards to congratulate South Africa on ‘inspiring a nation’, and Sonny Bill Williams has started a conversation about it being time for a Māori or Pasifika coach.

For a country that split itself in half during the 1981 Springbok tour, with one side arguing there was no place for politics in sport, I’ve seen a lot of New Zealanders responding to victorious skipper Siya Kolisi’s quite-political speech after the 2019 Rugby World Cup final and South Africa’s win with nothing but optimism and positivity.

That’s what been so fulfilling about following this year’s Rugby World Cup. The presence of those social, cultural and yes, political moments have amplified all that’s good about sport while understanding change is necessary and it won’t be without its challenges. Acknowledging the players are human beings with families and vulnerabilities, while demonstrating a renewed cognisance of their influence, has made rugby more accessible and relevant. There’s a gap in the armour and, rather than it being a weakness, it’s increasingly becoming part of what will ensure the future of rugby.

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