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«ESSAY 9 ALL THE SUFFERING ON OUR BACKS Rugby, religion and redemption amid the ruins PHIL I P C ASS Published in 2014 by ePress All the suffering on ...»

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Rugby, religion and redemption

amid the ruins


Published in 2014 by ePress

All the suffering on our backs: Rugby, religion and redemption amid the ruins by Philip Cass is licensed under a Creative Commons

Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

This publication may be cited as:

Cass, P (2014). All the suffering on our backs: Rugby, religion and redemption amid the ruins. In G. Dodson, & E. Papoutsaki (Eds.),.

Communication issues in Aotearoa New Zealand: A collection of research essays (pp 106-120). Auckland, New Zealand: Epress Unitec.

ISBN 978-1-927214-15-2 ESSAY 9


Rugby, religion and redemption amid the ruins PHIL I P C ASS Painting by Don Little1 Used with the permission of the artist.


New Zealand’s All Black rugby team is a national icon, an affirmation of the manly, self-reliant and resilient virtues which New Zealanders like to think they possess.

In times of national peril, economic uncertainty and disaster they remain a pillar of certainty and inspiration, present in almost every television news bulletin and daily newspaper.2 1 www.walesonline.co.uk/news/local-news/jesus-black-cathedral-seeks-divine-1812091 2 This essay grew out of a paper presented to the Media Asia conference in Osaka in November 2011. I would like to thank postgraduate Communication Studies student Jonathan Waugh for his contribution to the original conference presentation and Fumiko Goodhue for translating Japanese sources.

At other times the All Blacks – whether current players or not - have also provided the media with a frame of reference for explaining significant international events to New Zealand audiences. In 2011 the All Blacks were used prominently to report on the Christchurch earthquake and the much greater seismic devastation experienced in Japan. However, as the Rugby World Cup approached both New Zealand and international media also began to invest the performance of rugby players with a quasi-religious expectation that they would somehow provide catharsis and healing for the earthquake victims in New Zealand and Japan. In doing so they reflected processes that had occurred elsewhere, notably in New Orleans after Cyclone Katrina, the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa and London after the July 2007 terrorist attacks.

Rugby has been described as a religion in New Zealand. It is certainly an obsession. Located on the fringes of the north Antarctic and exercising little global economic, political or military influence, New Zealand constantly seeks to mark a space for itself on the world stage through sport. Despite the success of its sportsmen and women in a variety of competitions, rugby remains the central, if not the driving force, in New Zealand sport and in its quest for global recognition. New Zealand’s national team, the All Blacks, is freighted with all sorts of social, cultural and quasi-political expectations. (Crawford, 1986; Massey

University, 2011). Hope (2002, p. 236) argues that:

From 1905 to about 1960, rugby union was a defining feature of regional identity and New Zealand national consciousness. To actually play for the All Blacks was to enter national service. In each physical encounter, the reputation of New Zealand was at stake. This responsibility was reiterated by press and radio coverage nationwide.

While Hope says the nature of New Zealand identity (and thus, by implication, the role of the All Blacks in forming that identity) was questioned in the 1960s and 70s, the media have continued to use the All Blacks as a useful, if simplistic, frame for explaining significant local and international events, especially natural or man-made catastrophes, to New Zealand audiences. As we shall see, during the Christchurch and Japanese earthquakes in 2011 they were used to represent certainty and inspiration in dozens of television news bulletins and newspaper reports.

New Zealand coverage of the Christchurch earthquake tended to focus on the heroic and on the survivors. The media used football players as iconic figures, especially as inspiration for survivors or because they were personally involved.

Rugby players, especially All Blacks, are often used by the New Zealand media as a frame for narrating difficult or complicated stories, especially when they happen overseas. Why the views, thoughts or experiences of football players should be regarded as being important enough to be constantly paraded before the public can only be explained by considering the history of the game in the country.

In New Zealand rugby began as an elite sport imported from Oxford, but became part of mainstream culture. In early colonial societies survival was often seen as depending on obedience, team work and the suppression of the desires of the individual to the needs of the community. In the 19th Century the British promoted - at home and in the Dominions - the ideals of ‘manliness,’ ‘team spirit’ and the notion that what really mattered was to take part and, if you couldn’t win, to still feel superior to your opponents because you had lost gallantly.3 In such societies conformity and discipline were emphasised4 (Crawford, 1985, 1986; Grainger, 2008; Nauright, 1999; Minogue, 1965). However, early literature refers to the role of rugby as a social leveller in colonial New Zealand.

Pioneering rugby in New Zealand helped create a sense of community and identification in a society experiencing rapid urban development and the growth of civic consciousness. The game was one answer to the industrial anomie in the 1880s. Many of the factory workers in Dunedin, Christchurch and Wellington in the 1880s were only a generation or so removed from their former roles as suburban shopkeepers, village dwellers and farm labourers. The enthusiastic following for rugby made possible “a new sense of belonging, a ritualistic involvement in a larger group” (Crawford, 1985, p 79). It is possible to speculate on the notion of a strategy to engage the masses in activities which would inculcate sound moral values, divert energy from harmful pursuits and breed the physical and mental toughness needed to strengthen national fibre.

This belief that rugby players exemplify desirable national characteristics may explain why it sometimes appears that parts of the New Zealand media think New Zealanders will be unable to comprehend a major story unless there is the familiar figure of a rugby player or some connection with rugby to make the story somehow understandable and appealing.

Early in 2011, for instance, New Idea carried a front page story about former All Black Frank Bunce and his ‘escape’ from Cairo during the beginning of the Arab Spring. Told in breathless tones, the story presented Bunce as the central figure and told of his experiences in trying to get on a plane in an airport terminal full

of panic stricken people:

‘We made a narrow escape,’ the father of five says. ‘There was no order.

[Airport authorities] closed the doors and started cancelling flights. It was bedlam. ‘It’s almost like being in a scrum. People were arguing and physically fighting,’ he adds. ‘You were at the mercy of the mob’ (Botting, 2011).

Bunce was in fact a long way from the main action at Takhrir Square and his experiences were not unlike those of most other people at the airport. While Bunce expressed sympathy for the Egyptians, little attempt was made in the 3 Such views being most famously expressed, of course, in Sir Henry Newbolt’s poem Vitae Lampada.

4 Sport performed a similar function elsewhere. One thinks, for instance, of the “virtuous manliness” of Gaelic sports described by McDevitt (1997).

story to put the Egyptian situation in perspective and the magazine’s cover promoted the piece as being about a heroic All Black escaping from the clutches of a mob of excitable foreigners. The coverage of the Japanese and Christchurch earthquakes was little different.


The Christchurch earthquake struck the Canterbury region in the central south island of New Zealand at 12:51pm local time on February 22, 2011, with a magnitude of 6.3. The epicentre of the earthquake was situated two kilometres west of the town of Lyttelton, the main port for the Canterbury Region, and 10 kilometres south-east of Christchurch’s city centre at a depth of about five kilometres. The earthquake resulted in 181 deaths and 1500-2000 injuries, 164 of them serious. Aftershocks caused an estimated US$12-13 billion worth of damages. The February earthquake was New Zealand’s second-deadliest recorded natural disaster after the 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake (Vaidyanathan, 2011).

What became known as the Great East Japan Disaster struck the Tõhoku region of eastern Japan at 2:46pm local time on March 11, 2011, with a magnitude of 9.0. The epicentre for the earthquake was about 70 kilometres east of the Oshika Peninsula, Miyagi Prefecture, in the Pacific Ocean at a depth of about 32 kilometres. The initial earthquake resulted in the formation of tsunami waves of up to 40.5 metres, some of which travelled up to 10 kilometres inland and which, in turn, caused a number of accidents at nuclear power plants in the affected areas. The simultaneous disasters resulted in 15,799 confirmed deaths, 5,297 injuries, and 4,041 missing people. Aftershocks and the nuclear incidents caused to date an estimated US$122 billion worth of damages. The Great East Japan disaster is Japan’s most powerful recorded earthquake to date and one of the deadliest natural disasters to have struck Japan. It is the fifth most powerful recorded earthquake in the world (Siddique, The Guardian; Department of International Affairs, Japan Science and Technology Agency, 2011; Risk Management Solutions, n.d).

Initial media reports about the February earthquake in New Zealand international media tended to focus on the overall destruction of the city centre of Christchurch, paying particular attention to the destruction of the Anglican Cathedral and other heritage buildings and city landmarks (McMorran, 2011; Swami, 2011). Particular attention was paid to damage done in and around the central city district of Christchurch, especially that which occurred in the exclusion zone of what has come to be known as the Red Zone.

Early coverage of the February earthquake also concentrated on the collapse of the CTV building and gave an even handed account of the effect of the quake on Cantabrians as a whole. The focus on the CTV building may have been because it was home to Canterbury Television and therefore many of the dead were known to the media in the rest of New Zealand. It can be assumed, however, that the concentration of coverage was also due to the large number of foreign students – including many Japanese – who were killed when the language school in the building collapsed. A significant proportion of the death toll from the February earthquake came from the collapse of the CTV Building.

The damaged AMI Stadium at Lancaster Park received a lot of attention (Ford, 2011; Mairs, 2011; Tonkin & Taylor, 2011). Although, Lancaster Park and AMI Stadium are not actually located within the Red Zone, the complex is considered the home of rugby in the Canterbury region. It is the home stadium for the local Super Rugby franchise, the Canterbury Crusaders, and was originally one of the intended host stadiums for seven matches of the 2011 Rugby World Cup competition. Reports on the damage to the AMI Stadium at Lancaster Park focused not so much on the actual structure of the stadium buildings as on the damage to the uninsured main playing field due to the mass liquefaction of the soil. Concern about the condition of the stadium was magnified by the fact that it had been designated as a host stadium for seven matches in the Rugby World Cup which New Zealand was hosting later that year.

New Zealand’s hosting of the Rugby World Cup was a perfect example of what Black and Van Der Westhuizen (2004) describe as attempts by semi-peripheral polities to promote themselves or seek global recognition by hosting international sporting events they believe will bring them respect, recognition and wealth.

Hosting - and winning - the Rugby World Cup was important psychologically to many New Zealanders and the media played up this angle for all it was worth.

When it was found that the field had become too damaged by liquefaction to be played on, a fresh angle was developed about the anguish that would be felt by Cantabrians not only deprived of their home team, but of the chance to host any Rugby World Cup matches. This became a continuing theme in media coverage of Christchurch and became even more pronounced as the eve of the Rugby World Cup approached.

Canadian sports psychologist Lise Valcour declared that there was a definite link between the mental wellbeing of Cantabrians and their lost stadium (Fuseworks Media, 2011). She went on to say that success in the world cup offered the battered city a chance to heal, as if every homeless, freezing, unemployed Christchurch inhabitant would find solace in the outcome of a sporting tournament.

Valcour said Christchurch people had not fully comprehended the damage to their city and the impact of missing out on hosting Rugby World Cup games.

She said becoming aware the psychological reactions of earthquake survivors

was important, especially at a time like the 2011 Rugby World Cup:

Watching World Cup games in the Christchurch stadium is now only a shattered dream. Sadly, Christchurch people will not see their leading All Blacks perform in their own city this year - only on TV. Earthquake devastations have left over 400,000 Christchurch people in a surreal state. A city left with a deflated sense of pride, a diminished sense of joy, uncertainty, fear, sorrow, pain and suffering. No more eyes of the world upon its amazing rugby team but eyes of the world on people who have lost their city, their homes, their stadium, their games. What is there left?

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