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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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(Fuseworks Media, 2011; The Press, 2011) As the RWC drew closer, the media’s focus shifted from the actual damage and reconstruction efforts to the number of tourist dollars that would not now come to Christchurch. The media also began to focus on stories about rugby teams visiting Christchurch, charity matches and fund raising events and other items designed to boost the morale of Cantabrians.

While fund raisers might be seen as a fairly normal kind of story to run in the aftermath of a natural disaster, the attention paid to visits to Christchurch by other teams took on the air of religious reporting, as if the players were making a pilgrimage to Christchurch to heal the city. This aspect of the reporting was something that grew steadily over the months following the quake. Initial reports about All Black players who were also members of the Crusaders, such as Kieran Read and Andrew Ellis, had depicted them as ordinary blokes lending a hand and as people who recognised that the earthquake was more important

than rugby. AFP reported:

This is a bigger thing than footy at the moment, it was the only way to go for us, to be honest, Read told the New Zealand Herald as he worked to ” remove silt and debris from quake-hit properties Thursday. “We are just wanting to help out in our community, and are doing whatever we can. ” The loose forward said New Zealand’s second city resembled a “war zone” after suffering its second major quake in six months (Tip News, 2011).


From the moment the AMI stadium was declared out of action, elements of the New Zealand and international media began to report as if the function of the teams gathered for the World Cup was to fulfil a semi-divine function, with Christchurch acting as a sort of Lourdes in reverse. The New Zealand Herald described one such visit as “an emotional pilgrimage, (Bayer, 2011) but made it ” clear that it was the All Blacks who were there to heal the city as they met with “hundreds of adoring fans” (ibid, 2011). The English team also visited and in its coverage of their visit the religious imagery was made even more explicit as the devastation of the Lancaster Park stadium was contrasted with the destruction of the city’s Anglican cathedral.

England’s team manager Martin Johnson, the Guardian reported, “Could only gaze at the liquefaction-scarred surface of the old Lancaster Park and extend his sympathy to those suffering far greater trauma”(Kitson, 2011). Then the Australian team visited and the ABC joined other news organisations in describing the loss of the stadium and the subsequent re-scheduling of Rugby World Cup gains as

an emotional – if not quite spiritual – loss:

People have watched the parties that have gone on in other cities with the Rugby World Cup games and I think it’s more the sort of feeling that we’re not part of the party is the thing that’s affected people more rather than money (Colvin, 2011).

Rugby provides sporting links between New Zealand and Japan, through competition and the second careers as coaches and players that Japan offers to former All Blacks. It was therefore not entirely unexpected that in their coverage of the Japanese earthquake, the New Zealand media resorted to rugby players to give their coverage a local angle. This story from The Southland Times, offers

a good example:

Former All Black Paul Miller watched his television in horror on Friday night as the country he has strong ties to was struck by a devastating earthquake and tsunamis. Waikaka’s favourite son carved out an impressive career with Southland and Otago but for the past five years has been playing his rugby in Japan. He said watching many parts of the Japanese landscape which he knew so well go under water was devastating and surreal.

The hardest-hit area, Sendai, was where Miller’s team use to hold their preseason training camps (Savory, 2011).

Finding a local angle in international stories is a normal practice, but the fact that the media focussed on rugby players can perhaps be an indication that for some sections of the media only a sporting hero will do. The danger of course is that the stories of New Zealanders who are not rugby players might go unreported, thus reinforcing the notion that only the presence of a rugby player can make a story worthwhile or comprehensible.

As with Read and Ellis, the media also looked for stories about rugby players helping out and found them in Pita Alatini, captain of the Kamaishi Seawaves, who stayed on with other expatriate players to help in the aftermath of the quake.

The New Zealand Herald reported that Alatini “could easily have fled his adopted home town, but “stayed on to help rebuild the port town he has called home for ” the past six years” (AFP 2011). While in no way belittling Alatini’s efforts, many, foreigners in Japan will have made the same decision. Yet it seems that for some parts of the New Zealand media such actions were only worth reporting if made by a rugby player.

The natural disaster that became known as the Great East Japan Earthquake affected rugby in Japan as much as the Christchurch earthquake did in New Zealand. A number of events were put off or cancelled altogether during 2011.

Among them were the Tri-Regions Tournament scheduled for the middle of March, the YC&AC Japan Sevens competition, which had been set for early April, the Tokyo Sevens which had been scheduled for mid-April and numerous individual games, open days and carnivals. A tour of Japan that was to include four matches with a New Zealand Universities team in April and May was called off (Rugby International, 2011).

In Japan, the actions of Japanese rugby teams in organising fund raising events and dedicating particular contests to earthquake victims were reported. However, the Japanese media tended to report the views of senior team management and concentrate on the efforts of the team and the competition as a whole, rather than singling out individual players for attention as was the case in the New Zealand media. This report from the Asahi Shimbun provides a good example. It reports on the first match played by the Kamaishi Seawaves after the earthquake and uses the same redemptive imagery and quotations as the New Zealand


This might have helped Kamaishi take one step closer to recovery’, said Seawaves general manager Yoshiyuki Takahashi after seeing the smiling faces of the fans (Asahi Shimbun, 2011).

Later the article reports on the team’s involvement immediately after the earthquake. In doing so it presents the work done by players to help in the

immediate aftermath of the earthquake as an organised, group effort:

When Takahashi found out that his employer, Nippon Steel’s Kamaishi steel mill, was looking for men who could do manual labour, he called on all his players.…’There are things that we can do using our physical skills,’ he told his team, and sent young players out to help carry relief supplies and assist evacuee wheelchair users (Asahi Shimbun, 2011)


Quasi-religious imagery and ideas of catharsis and healing crept into coverage of rugby after the Japanese earthquake as well. In September 2011, during the Rugby World Cup in Auckland, the Rugby News Service reported that Japan


To inspire a nation with a courageous performance against France … almost exactly six months after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and a tsunami devastated eastern Japan (Rugby News Service, 2011).

Former all Black John Kirwan, who was then coach of the Japanese team, was

reported as saying the Japanese team:

- would play for all those who suffered in the March 11 disaster, as well as earthquake victims in Christchurch... He added: “We’re going to be taking (on our backs) all the people who are suffering in Japan and also a little thought to the Christchurch people as well (Japan determined to inspire quake victims, 2011).

It is uncommon for a rugby coach to claim that his team is going to carry the suffering of a whole people on its backs. It is not clear whether Kirwan was conscious of the religious allusion, nor whether he saw himself as Jesus or Simon of Cyrene. One wonders whether a Japanese coach would have made the same speech or deified rugby and its players in the same way.

The deification of rugby in the run-up to the Rugby World Cup reached its peak when the Anglican Cathedral in Wellington displayed an icon by the artist Don Little of Jesus dressed as an All Black. The Dean, the very Reverend Frank Nelson, told the Dominion Post the image “was appropriate because of the quasi-religious status that rugby holds in New Zealand” (Wales Online, n.d.).

How then to explain the expectations heaped upon rugby by the media? The simplest answer is that journalists felt that if New Zealand won the world cup it would release all their post-earthquake anguish and pent up emotion and that they would thereafter feel much better. First year drama students will tell you that this process is called catharsis and that the idea dates back to ancient Greek drama, which was in any case a quasi-religious event. Replace the battles of Ajax and Achilles with those of the All Blacks and there, simplistically, you have it.

Sporting events have been presented as a form of national catharsis after a disaster (or at least to be perceived as such afterwards) in many countries5.

Many American observers have claimed to see just such a process at work in New Orleans, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. There, the return of the National Football League and the hosting of the Super Bowl have been hailed as signs of the city’s catharsis, recovery and redemption.

Some academics have criticised the media for pushing this particular idea, while others have argued that football is not ‘just sport’ and that the city’s residents benefited enormously from these sporting events. In any case, there was a clear acceptance that some people at least believed that the return of NFL had allowed them to feel better and run joyously through the streets of their wrecked neighbourhoods.

5 The 2012 London Olympics, for instance, had a particular resonance with the 2007 London bombings, an idea explored in the 2012 BBC documentary 7/7: One Day in London (Anthony, 2012).

Serazio (2010) argues that even though the city still needed real, concrete solutions to the long term effects of the hurricane, sports journalists were peddling the notion that having the Super Bowl played in the city provided some

sort of mystical, mythical triumph. The local media, he claims:

Relentlessly employed a winning team as the trope for metaphorical recovery and a means of the collective simultaneously coping with and escaping from traumatic memory… Through a return to the dome, this story held, traumatic memory could be expunged with almost religious fervour (Serazio, 2010 p.156).

This kind of boosterism was also found in other newspapers. This article from

the New York Times is probably as good an example as any:

The Super Bowl has returned to New Orleans this week and it is an event, for now at least, that is the last act of a magnificent comeback by a truly great American city. New Orleans officially shows the country and the world that is all the way back now from Katrina (Lupica, 2013).6


Academics, such as Geary (2012) argue that the healing and redemptive powers of the National Football League (NFL) are real, citing the holding of the Super Bowl in the city as “a moment when seemingly every New Orleanian ran celebrating into the streets, whether their houses were new or still covered by tarps” (http://edwp.educ.msu.edu/new-educator/2012/recovering-home-fromthe-storm-to-the-super-bowl/).

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South Africa’s World Rugby Cup victory in 1995 was also presented by the media in a similar manner as a token of the healing of the wounds of apartheid, with pictures of Nelson Mandela handing the cup to Springbok captain Francois Pienaar. Even Hollywood took an interest (Corrigan, 2010) and Clint Eastwood dramatised the event in his film Invictus (Eastwood, 2009).

As the Rugby World Cup in Auckland approached, Time magazine’s Matt McAllester drew a link between South Africa’s victory and the potential for a New Zealand win to have a similar effect: “The ultimate salve for the city’s and 6 It is worth noting, however, that while sections of the media were boosting the virtues of the NFL, researchers such as Matheson and Baade (2006) argued that although having major league football back in the city might make people feel better, the cost of attracting national league teams back to the city would detract from the money needed to build new houses. Gavin (2007) also pointed out the inordinate cost of returning the NFL and NBA to New Orleans and argued that money should have been spent on housing rather than refurbishing the city’s superdome.

the country’s wounds would be for … the All Blacks … to lift the Cup after the final game” (McAllester, 2011).

Some commentators saw a clear quasi-religious dimension to the expectations that were being piled on top of the game as the competition progressed.

According to Professor Peter Lineham:

The dream and ambition of a sporting triumph, especially on our own shores, is an extraordinary way to create a national religion. This ‘quasi religious’ status of rugby, manifested in the contagious nationwide cup mania, has its roots in the days when men lived for the weekend rugby match … For many, it gave their lives meaning and significance. What becomes religious about this is when rugby starts carrying a value that it can’t possibly fulfil and is not designed to provide for. So it becomes a quasi-religion, a substitute for religion … This notion of the simple saviour, and the heroism of the simple bloke was part of New Zealand’s early identity and was a striking feature of rugby … In practice nobody pretends the All Blacks are gods and we tend to abandon them fairly quickly if they lose. They don’t generate genuine moral, ethical principles. Their status is out of all proportion with reality” (Massey University News, 2011).

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