Tuesday, October 16, 2012

'I don't have to do this anymore'

Richie McCaw has made a career out of his lack of wit. He’s a genius at doing what is ordinary. At applying himself. At getting stuck in. He has grown into a rugby superstar by being stronger, working harder and enduring more pain than anybody else in the field, and he’s been doing it for thirteen years. When you look at him you might fool yourself into thinking that anybody could do what he does – so long as they were as strong and could take as much pain and work as hard as he. It’s not remotely that simple, of course: McCaw plays the game with all the intelligence and guile that the role of open side flanker demands. But you wouldn’t know it by listening to him. In all his post-game speeches and press conferences McCaw is softly spoken, unassuming and candid. The title of his newly published autobiography, The Open Side, banks on this lack of artifice, promising nothing less than absolute transparency.

The publishers were kind enough to release two different extracts to Fairfax and APN, so they could both claim exclusive rights. The pieces themselves are interchangeable: each will give you the distinct flavour of the book and a window onto a prose that barely qualifies as prose. Dan Carter gets crocked. Richie’s foot goes clunk. Mils Muliaina cracks his shoulder blade and doesn't come out for the second half. ‘Jesus, what else?’ It’s a litany of bangs, bruises and worries, studiously written the way McCaw speaks. The one piece of insight to be gleaned from the two extracts, totalling nearly five thousand words in length, is that the captain played throughout the last World Cup with a very sore foot, which is of course something we had been told at the time in almost equally painful detail. But really, it was very sore. ‘I’m sick of the bloody foot,’ says/writes McCaw four thousand words into the combined excerpt, by which stage the reader knows exactly how he feels.

A tell-all book with nothing to say: this is how one could characterise The Open Side, if the sample is representative. However it seems unlikely to me that the sport is so uncomplicated, and one of its major personalities so two-dimensional. I suspect that McCaw can count among the very many pressures that he has been under since at least 2005 that of embodying the model All Black captain, hence of being as stoic and laconic off the field as he is ruthless and cynical on it. That, even more than the legendary flair of the Dan Carters or the Tana Umagas, is the true essence of the team’s brand: a combination of honesty, strength and will to succeed.

Meanwhile, insurance behemoth AIG is rebranding itself. Once the sponsor of Manchester United, the company had its logo replaced with that of competitor AON in 2010, following its bailout. Now the $182 billion debt has been repaid and CEO Robert Benmosche has decided it’s time to restore the company’s good name. If you think that it sounds a little bit like the redemption that the All Blacks sought at the last World Cup, it shows you’ve been paying attention.

The information page on the All Blacks' website concerning the new sponsorship deal characterises the relationship as follows:
This is a company that has been through tough times, repaid its debt to American taxpayers and is on the comeback trail. They look at the All Blacks as a team of character that has bounced back from adversity, and a team that remains the most successful rugby side in the world, one that prides itself on winning, like all our national teams. AIG also wants to be the best in the world at what it does.
Concerning the issue of the prominence of the AIG logo, which is quite unprecedented for an All Blacks team, the document goes on to explain that
AIG greatly respects the rich and proud heritage of the All Blacks jersey. This is why the logo is also just under one third the size of the maximum allowed under IRB regulations. The logo is significantly smaller than those appearing on the jerseys of many other international teams and smaller than those on Investec Super Rugby and provincial team jerseys. The logo on the All Blacks shorts is also less than two thirds the maximum permitted.
This is what honesty, strength and a will to succeed get you: a better deal, and a less invasive logo on your hallowed shirt. I find the negotiation itself fascinating and wonder what price was put on each of those precious millimetres. How much each side had to give before a deal was struck. How much like a war it was.

There is no more literal image of the bankable value of that piece of cloth than this MasterCard ad circulating in the lead-up to the last World Cup.

However the branding of rugby by corporate interests is only half of the story. The other half is the colonisation of the whole of culture, society and politics by sports.

When New Zealand hosted the World Cup we were asked to become a nation about rugby. Martin Snedden’s favourite slogan – a stadium of four million – captured the entire narrative quite beautifully. The state had made a massive financial investment but it had to be matched by an athlete-like commitment on the part of each of us. I was in Italy during the 1990 Soccer World Cup, but had never experienced anything like this. It was not only accepted as inevitable that the Cup should dominate public life for months on end (even the school calendar was amended to accommodate it), but it was actually welcomed. This culminated in the renaming of entire towns. Benneydale became Rugbydale. Te Kuiti, grotesquely, became Meadsville.

What was most disconcerting and frustrating is that you couldn’t critique any of this. As the Meadsville poster exemplifies, the narrative of total commitment to the Cup contained its own ironic inversion, so if you had a problem with any of it, it meant that you didn’t get the joke. (And there are few things more disqualifying in our culture than not getting a joke.) The military-themed ad campaign for Sky’s television coverage set the standard for this unique brand of totalitarianism with humour.

In spite of all of this, I was quite prepared to enjoy the rugby once the tournament got underway, and for a while I did. I don’t pretend to see the logic of it. Allegiances to sports in general or one sport over the other, including my own allegiances, have always struck me as arbitrary affairs, governed by mood and accident. This is not to deny that rugby is a genuine part of my adoptive culture, but to acknowledge it is not sufficient. There still needs to be a spark, something that will make you believe in the spectacle. (After all each individual sport, unless you’re a player yourself, is like a string of endless reruns. Why would anyone bother?) Sports marketers must be keenly aware of these alchemies, as well as of the perils of corporatising a sport’s most cherished symbols, which is no doubt why they negotiate for every millimetre of non-sponsored space on those jerseys. Push things too far and something might snap. But there are other reasons, as well as non-reasons, the arguments we make up to rationalise what can’t be readily explained.

Something snapped for me last year, and I think it was during the second half of the grand final, when François Trinh-Duc went to take a crucial penalty and I realised I didn’t really care whether or not he was going to score. It was nothing like that famous kick by John Eales. I had lost faith that something real was happening. I couldn’t honestly tell you why, although I could make up a plausible enough reason. All I know is that in the end I couldn’t quite make the total commitment that was asked of me. I have barely watched a game of rugby since.

When the final whistle of the World Cup Final blew, Richie McCaw sank to one knee. His initial emotion, he tells us in the book, was more relief than joy.
It's finished. I can stop. I don't have to do this any more.
I find this such an arresting line. It captures with brilliant concision the physical and psychological strain that McCaw had to overcome to get to that point in his life and career, as well as the singular paradox of how joyless even your favourite sport can become when it is invested with far greater meanings than the act of running around on grass could possibly express. As soon as I read it I thought of those famous lines at the end of Foreskin’s Lament.
Can’t play the game.
Can’t play the game
Or anymore wear the one-dimensional mask
For the morons’ Mardi Gras
Where they ask you whaddarya
But really, really don’t want to know.
Letting myself get carried away, I thought of McCaw delivering those lines, the entire monologue, ending in that heart-stopping string of whaddaryas?, as if to say, you can take your stadium of four million and fuck right off. None of this matters, none of this is real. But that would be reading far too much into that single line. It doesn’t matter that it’s Greg McGee himself who helped McCaw write his book. People move on. McGee has moved on. So has Richie McCaw, who after another very successful season is about to take nine months off with a view to prolong his career. So has Martin Snedden, who as the CEO of the Tourism Industry Association will now be working on our transformation into a Shire of four million. Something else for us to be, another communal effort with no trade-offs and untold benefits for years to come. So long as we never ask – what are we?