(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, November 9.)
Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia, defines “mania” as a state of abnormally elevated or irritable mood, arousal, and/ or energy levels.
Sound familiar? Strike out that word “irritable” and you’ve got an accurate description of the mood that gripped the country for the duration of the Rugby World Cup.
Like any patriotic New Zealander, I was pleased at the outcome of the event; but I was also relieved when it was over. The media hype was relentless and overwhelming.
Harmless fun? Yes, most of the time. Yet occasionally there was a nasty edge to it, and it didn’t escape attention.
A columnist in the Sydney Morning Herald, Paul Sheehan, brought the collective wrath of the nation down on his head in the last week of the tournament when he criticised the throat-slitting gesture in the All Blacks’ Kapa O Pango haka.
The criticism came at the tail end of what I thought was a fair and perceptive column in which Sheehan commented on the “immense emotional stake” New Zealanders had invested in the RWC final, which was to be played the following weekend.
“The cumulative weight of the 24 years since the All Blacks won the World Cup for the first and only time has become a burden on the nation that can be lifted only when the All Blacks captain lifts the cup once more,” Sheehan wrote.
Had the Wallabies won the semifinal against the All Blacks, he added, the result would have been a “psychic scar” across New Zealand.
The column concluded with Sheehan saying that the violence implied by the throat-slitting gesture had no place in sport.
To say he touched a raw nerve would be to understate the case. More than 560 comments were posted on the Sydney Morning Herald’s website, many of them from outraged New Zealanders. When Fairfax Media’s Stuff website in New Zealand picked up Sheehan’s comments, a further 868 comments were posted – depressing proof that nothing, not even politics or religion, arouses New Zealanders’ emotions more than sport.
Some readers remonstrated with Sheehan for supposedly misunderstanding the throat-slitting gesture. A handful sided with him. But most readers accused Sheehan of being a sore loser because the All Blacks had beaten the Wallabies a few days before.
This was a lazy and churlish response. Far easier to accuse Sheehan of sour grapes than to engage with his arguments, which were that the Kapa O Pango haka sends an unfortunate message (whatever its defenders may claim) and that New Zealanders depend far too heavily on one sport, rugby, for their national pride and sense of identity.
A few readers seized Sheehan’s column as an opportunity to boast of New Zealand’s superior race relations and to condemn Australia’s treatment of Aboriginals – hardly relevant in this context. One commenter labelled Sheehan a convict.
The tone of the responses was overwhelmingly vitriolic and depressingly puerile. A fairly typical comment (anonymous, of course – they always are) ran: “I think [the haka] is awesome. What have Australia got? That Waltzing Matilda crap.”
Another, in similar vein, went: “Thanks for your input skippy, now back to Waltzing Matilda, and leave us to our affairs.”
At such times we New Zealanders reveal an ugly aspect of the national character: touchy, defensive and acutely sensitive to criticism, especially when it comes from our big, brash neighbour. It wasn’t just the silver fern on display during the RWC; we grabbed the opportunity to parade our national inferiority complex too.
Sheehan was provoked into writing a second column in which he described the torrent of condemnation as “an outpouring of dog-in-the-manger, chip-on-the-shoulder, small-country-small-minded, defensive churlishness on an industrial scale.” I have to agree.
He reminded readers that he had described the haka as “the greatest ritual in world sport” (it was just the Kapo O Pango version he disliked), and had also acknowledged that it would be an injustice if the All Blacks didn’t win the RWC (so much for the accusations of sour grapes). But as I’ve learned myself in 40 years of writing newspaper columns, you can’t control the meaning readers choose to take from what you write.
The response to Sheehan’s column wasn’t the only unattractive New Zealand trait on display during the World Cup. The demonisation of New Zealand-born Wallaby Quade Cooper, encouraged by idiotic elements of the media, was just as distasteful. The booing whenever Cooper touched the ball was a disgrace.
One Australian commentator on The Roar website paid tribute to the good-natured reaction of New Zealand fans after the All Blacks had demolished the Wallabies. But how would we have behaved, I wonder, if the Aussies had won? It’s easy to be gracious in victory; much harder in defeat.
The most telling point Sheehan made in his original column was that rugby occupies too big a place in the New Zealand psyche, and our response to the All Blacks’ narrow win in the final proved his point.
Like any patriotic New Zealander I was pleased by the result, but the euphoria that enveloped the country for days afterwards was over the top. Our national pride must be very fragile if it rests on something as ephemeral as a sporting trophy.
I found the self-congratulatory tone of the celebrations intriguing too. Anyone would think the entire country had been playing the French on Eden Park rather than an elite team of highly paid professional sportsmen.
And I couldn’t help wondering about the ugly flip-side of victory. The consequences if the All Blacks had lost don’t bear thinking about.
The nation would have been plunged into a mood of dark despondency. If previous experience is anything to go by, the incidence of domestic violence would have soared as neanderthal males took out their frustrations on their partners and children.
Graham Henry and his team would probably have needed police protection. Former All Blacks coach John Hart received death threats and hate mail after the defeat by France in the 1999 semifinals. Just imagine how much more extreme the reaction would have been had they lost again this time.
Sheehan was right. New Zealand had too much emotion invested in the RWC and some of the side-effects weren’t pretty. As an Australian living in New Zealand commented on the Sydney Morning Herald website, we need another way, besides rugby, to define ourselves on the world stage.