“ Sport often brings out the worst in us and it’s something that we can ill afford to have on the sidelines or on the field at school sport.” Garry Carnachan, Director, New Zealand Secondary Schools Sports Council
Unlike last weekend’s unseemly schoolboys’ rugby brawl, which involved a hundred players and spectators from Kelston Boys High and Auckland Grammar School, when I played against Kelston, as a 14 year old member of a Papakura High School junior rugby team, there were no spectators and no trouble.
Weeks before, after hitchhiking to Hamilton, I had watched the first game of the 1956 Springbok tour against Waikato in Hamilton from on top of a free perch on a handy hedge. Deadly Don Clarke put the boot in and kicked the winning points.
For the final and deciding test of the series against the All Blacks I was determined to make it into the ground at Eden Park. With hundreds of others, I queued all night, to the sounds of guitars strumming and sausages sizzling, and then, when the gates finally opened, joined the 100 yards dash to the huge slab of concrete which provided a legitimate Scotsman’s grandstand on the embankment.
Once you were in the packed park you could not get out: the Relief of Mafeking had nothing on Eden Park. The ground had a trickle-down micro economy which functioned courtesy of the sloping embankment. Old hands came equipped with Mr Goodyear’s inflationary cycling invention, the dextrous and decorous use of which would today make a great YouTube post on the benefits of recycling.
Peter Jones scored his decisive try for the All Blacks to complete the first ever series win against the Springboks and the sky was dark with a shower of programes and newspapers. (In the after match comments relayed by the ground’s sound system the Jones boy dropped “buggered” into the conversation in a way which first opened the door to Toyota’s later “bugger” commercials).
In those days of full houses were taken for granted and crowd behaviour, while robust and vocal, seldom degenerated into hooliganism.
For those who couldn’t make the games in person the alternative medium was radio -a quantum step up on the dotty pre-wireless system involving Morse Code messages being elaborated with poetic licence before being displayed, rugby phase by phase, on a large board to the assembled crowd in places like Cathedral Square, which beat having to wait for the first edition of The Press to know the result of big games.
In 1960 as a new university student I tuned in to the radio at 1:30 a.m. to catch the live broadcast of the All Blacks v. the Springboks games in South Africa, with the exciting cadences of Winston McCarthy ” ….. it’s a Goal! (This was not then a normal time for youth socialising-the pubs still closed at 6pm). The Don was at it again, but we lost the series. We could have done with players like Pat Walsh, who, like other Maori players, was left at home so as not to offend the susceptibilities of the Afrikaans dominated rugby hierarchy.
I heard the radio broadcast of the crucial last test at the Canterbury University Ski Club at Temple Basin, looking out at a moonlit Mt. Rolleston. Alas, the ABs failed to scale the peak of a series win in South Africa.
We also got to see some belated film footage as shorts at the movies. New Zealand only got TV in 1960 -one black and white channel, plus appropriately dated productions like the Black and White Minstrel Show, and was not geared for sports broadcasts. It was some years before rugby tests were rebroadcast in their entirety, let alone broadcast live.
Fast forward to 1974 and the Commonwealth Games and colour TV was introduced in time for us to see Dick Tayler clean up the 10,000 metres. Then it was satellite, replays, and slomo.
Free to air live broadcast rugby via television and radio was regarded by Rob Muldoon as the modern equivalent of bread and circuses-maybe not opium for the masses but at least anaesthesia. But in the last decade we have left the democratic days of free to air live broadcast rugby and reached for the Sky.
Today, so long as we are on the right side of the digital divide, we get the digital dividend: MySky, On Demand programming and live streaming on mobile devices, possibly sponsored by the Opticians Society. Sky is no longer the limit.
In the age of professional rugby television rights are the major source of revenue to the New Zealand Rugby union. With the multitude of multi media channels the NZRFU has got the message. Live gates are less of a factor financially though is crucial to have a full house of paying extras to create the right atmosphere on TV.
In the days since the unseemly Kelston Boys and Auckland Grammar rugby stoush there has since been a call to ban unruly spectators at school games. The school fracas has triggered an obvious thought. Why not go the whole way and ban all spectators at all rugby games, whether unruly or otherwise?
After all, the NZRU has often seemed to be moving in the direction of a policy of spectator deterence by its heavy handed stadium policing.
You may think a spectator free big game is virtually impossible, but, in fact, it’s virtually possible. The modern game is focused on the TV audience, which is why games are scheduled at strange times after dark. Of course, you still have to have the right crowd atmosphere and in the absence of paying spectators it would be costly to hire extras.
The answer is animation from Weta Studios. They have just supplied the digital goods for James Cameron’s new 3-D film Avatar. Filling the Cake Tin in Wellington with sober but animated spectator avatars who don’t streak and otherwise make a spectacle of themselves would be a piece of cake.
The only problem for the NZRU with the looming 2011 Rugby World Cup is that at this event the international body takes all the revenue except for the gates, so I guess the Union will have to insist on persisting with real spectators in the meantime.
I saw the All Blacks win the first Rugby World Cup at Eden Park in 1987-a task so thoroughly expected then it has come back to haunt their self-belief in every World Cup tournament since, despite- or perhaps because of -the positive prior commercials in which they featured.
With the three figure ticket prices on offer for the finals, to be there live, while they attempt to finally repeat the victory, I might just have to find another hedge.
http://folksong.org.nz/big_don/index.html NZ Folk song “Big Bad Don”
Lyall Lukey 23 August 2009 http://www.lukey.co.nz/