Rugby and the Church in NZ

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by MICHAEL PARKER

It was the morning during a World Cup rugby test, All Blacks vs. Ireland. The Mass started with the priest praying “let us acknowledge our faults to ready us for the work of worship”. Later, the priest – a true Kiwi – stated that numbers were down as many parishioners were attending another liturgy with its own rituals, and that rugby was another religion, and I agreed. I want to discuss the place of rugby, and its role in Catholic life in New Zealand.

In 2019, an elegant article in America magazine outlined the place of college football, especially the winning Notre Dame college team from the 1930s, which helped in acceptance of Catholics into mainstream of society in the USA – “the whole Church were Note Dame supporters and every Catholic priest was a talent scout”.  (1)

The case in New Zealand was similar; Catholics  in New Zealand were  excluded in some areas of life in the early 1900s. There was also a concern about “leakage” from the Church to other denominations. A Catholic ghetto developed, with Catholic schools, tennis clubs, scout groups, netball clubs and rugby clubs. The network of Catholic rugby clubs was, and still is, based around “feeder” Catholic high schools. The  rugby clubs were. and still are. “to reflect a Catholic ethos” (2); “to be a rugby club, but more than a rugby club” (3).  One way to be accepted was to play rugby just as well – or better than – others.

Catholic culture bought into an alternative religion, which had its own rituals and idols. Winning at rugby was to became hugely important to Catholic schools; high schools such as St Bedes, St Pat’s Silverstream, and St Peter’s all had periods of first XV success – and that mattered to New Zealand Catholics . The high school I went to still places  a successful year as winning the annual rugby game with the neighbouring  prestigious state school. One priest said to me in the mid-1960s that the games for St Pat’s, Silverstream, against Wellington College were the most important events of the year.

Rugby became a huge component of the New Zealand national identity from the early 1900s. By the 1956 South African Springbok tour, the whole country was consumed by rugby fever. Winning at rugby has become part of the national ethos, helping us to identifying with something New Zealanders consistently perform with excellence. For some, their identity can also be linked to All Black performances. If the AB’s win, then life is good. If they lose, then the nation mourns.

I want to pose the question – has rugby been an eroder of Catholic culture? Was the importance placed on rugby results greater than our spiritual development? I have asked these questions over several years, and have been met with agreement, and also an amount of ire and disagreement. One retired cleric, in talking of someone he knew, commented “I think he knew the rules of rugby better than he did the Scriptures”. Another immigrant priest told me that “rugby most certainly is the religion of this place”.

Also – let’s be frank here – that from the 1960s, when rugby clubs could fundraise through bars, rugby became a “boozy culture”. The sight of “the boys having a few after a close loss” could translate to four-to-five hours of steady drinking by a group of rowdy, grown men. Catholic rugby clubs were not immune from this booziness in their clubrooms. Thankfully, there has been a lot of work in promoting a positive culture that does not need to include drinking by rugby administrations.

I once replied to an elderly Jesuit priest who had written an article in a American periodical objecting to a proposal to play rugby over American football at his high school, due to injury risks. He then waxed lyrical how football contributed to teamwork, to training and developing manliness. In the reply, I said I was from New Zealand, where rugby is a religion of the land, that there are hundreds of concussions every year, and that we tackle hard without pads. I then also stated that there a lots of ways to develop manliness, such as young men hiking (we call it tramping) with a heavy pack in intemperate weather and developing a culture of service. I received no reply.

As child of the mid-sixties, I grew up in a rugby culture, ball-in-hand aged four, playing for club at six, playing for club and school until 17. Saturday mornings in winter would be playing rugby on a frosty field, home for lunch, go watch the senior team for the club in the afternoon, then back to the club for the after-match function. The men having beers, the ladies preparing a dinner, while the kids ran outside playing – you guessed it – rugby. In my teenage years, practising all the skills with my brothers, spiral kicking from right foot and left foot, reverse passes, dummy to left pass to right , sidesteps and all the component skills – I was not even a rep or first XV player, but that’s what lots of kids did. It was a rugby culture.

So, for me, there can be a cultural force when I am drawn into a game of rugby, and my emotions can rise or wane dependent on my team’s performance. Afterwards, I can be “washed out” emotionally for several hours, with my thoughts centred around “the game”, with “post-game analysis”. “Did you see the game mate?” – this becomes a basis of camaraderie, school and workplace conversation.  It is a conversation-starter after Mass, and it is a safe topic among men. Selection processes for the All Blacks or Blues also become a conversation-starter. These are all part of the rituals of the rugby religion.

As Catholic faithful, would we ever give up watching rugby for Lent to make ourselves uncomfortable? Going on a “rugby fast” to see what God could do to draw close to him. How much is the alternative religion of rugby in our bones? Sometimes I think about these things, yet I still love a “good game of footy”. I have no easy answers, except to acknowledge the truth that rugby has been and, for many, still is a huge part of popular Catholic culture in New Zealand.

  • Michael Parker lives in North West Auckland
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