Is New Zealand Rugby losing its shine?

Conference in Palmerston North from June 28 to 30

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With the British and Irish Lions Tour under way and renewed concerns over the state of Rugby in New Zealand being expressed in the media, organisers of the upcoming World in Union (New Zealand) 2017 International Rugby Conference at Massey University have invited contributors to reflect on the historical development of the game.

One common theme among contributors is that such concerns are nothing new.

They have been repeatedly expressed, albeit in different contexts, as long as the game has been played.

Massey University School of Humanities Senior Lecturer (History) Dr Geoff Watson has spent 17 years researching sports history in New Zealand.

All Blacks Tours

His Paper entitled ‘Tales of the Tours,’ investigates the 1959, 1966, 1971 and 1977 tours, charting the contrasting fortunes of New Zealand rugby.

The Paper documents the All Black dominance of the 1950s and 1960s, which then faded with the defeat at the hands of the 1971 Lions and an unconvincing, albeit victorious performance against the 1977 Lions.

“The fluctuating performances of the national team mirrored wider concerns about the state of the game. Controversy over New Zealand’s sporting contacts with South Africa, the rise of soccer as an alternative option and critiques of violence and male chauvinism undermined public support for the game,” Dr Watson said.

“These tensions took an unprecedented physical form in New Zealand during the 1981 South African tour, during which more than 150,000 New Zealanders engaged in protest action resulting in some violent clashes between demonstrators, Police and pro-tour supporters. With reference to the 1981 tour, Sebastian Potgieter (a PhD candidate from the University of Otago) argued that it had a profound effect upon sport in South Africa, notably in ensuring South African Rugby remained largely isolated during the 1980s.”

Ambivalent attitude

The recent dominance of the All Blacks should not necessarily be interpreted as representing universal support for the game in New Zealand.

Professor Toni Bruce, from the University of Auckland, will discuss New Zealander’s contrasting responses to the 2007, 2011 and 2015 Rugby World Cups and ways in which both fans and non-followers of Rugby have experienced these events.

While Rugby is often alluded to as the national game, Professor Bruce argues that the reality is much more complex, with many New Zealanders feeling, at best, ambivalent about its position in society.

Has Rugby dropped the ball?

Indeed, present concerns about declining passion for sport, lower participation levels and injuries need to be seen in the wider context of the history of the game, which has never received uncritical support from all sections of society.

As three of the Conference contributors argue, New Zealand Rugby has experienced recurring cycles of anxiety.

Professor Greg Ryan, from Lincoln University, argues that the 1950 Lions Tour, popularly remembered for the attractive back play of the tourists, occurred at a time when New Zealanders were insecure about the state of their national game, having lost six test matches in 1949. Moreover, this sense of insecurity was compounded by global events, with New Zealand having to adapt to Britain gradually losing its previous position of global dominance as its former colonies became independent.

Conference Director and Lecturer in Sport Management Dr Rachel Batty said that the historical perspectives will add value to the conference.

“They highlight how the game has changed over time and Rugby’s continuing relationship with society. Such historical perspectives complement the presentations of the practitioners and other rugby experts who will discuss the present state of the game.”

Former All Black Eroni Clarke will also give a presentation at the Conference.

He knows what it is like taking on the Lions, after playing two tests against them in 1993.

Mr Clarke will be coordinating a session on cultural competence in Rugby with Jeremy Hapeta from Massey’s School of Sport and Exercise.

Conference details

The Summit will begin with a welcome ceremony at the New Zealand Rugby Museum on June 28, followed by two days of presentations and discussions at Massey University’s Sport and Rugby Institute in Palmerston North on June 29 and 30.

The event will tackle the big issues facing rugby union, in addition to passing on knowledge and advice to those involved with the sport. Presentations on nationalism, culture, social issues, history, sport development, strength and conditioning, injury and prevention, coaching, performance enhancement, sponsorship, volunteer management and event management have already been confirmed.

An international array of academics, practitioners and educators will attend from Australia, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Europe and Japan, as well as from throughout New Zealand.

In addition to the presentations, there will also be interactive displays, including Woderwick the Kicking Robot’ created by staff from Massey University’s School of Engineering and Advanced Technology.

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Photo Caption:

Dr Geoff Watson

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