So, England were dumped out of their own World Cup in the group stage, becoming the first host nation to suffer that ignominy. People began their analysis: should Robshaw have kicked for goal against Wales, rather than going for the five points? If England had beaten Wales, did their display against Australia show that they were not capable of winning the trophy? Maybe three points would have been the right thing to do, especially if you are the kind of person who thinks that watching endless kicks at goal is entertaining (if you are, there’s another sport you might like), or if you prefer your sport sensible. But the game isn’t always like that. A friend of mine said that the problem wasn’t was with the decision to go for the line-out, but with the execution of same; I agreed at the time, and I agree now. Captaining a team takes balls, whether you win or lose, and fortune (usually) favours the brave.
That same friend loves to quote Theodore Roosevelt: ‘It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…’ I tend to agree. Sometimes you try and you fail, but that failure is more than any armchair critic will achieve.
When England played Australia in the final in 2003, I was watching the game at a Dunedin pub with a friend of mine, and when I went to the bathroom during the break, everyone was chanting Waltzing Matilda. I confess I was surprised. Why cheer for a team that might be described as our nemesis, from a nation that regularly bests us in sporting endeavours and then struts around like a proud pigeon? This was odd to me, but to everyone else it was normal. England are to be hated.
This time, he level of bitterness and vitriol levelled at the England team by my countrymen and women borders on the absurd. Knowing what I know now, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by the Kiwi response to England’s premature exit, but I was. The press have scarcely been less scathing than the land of social media, where the gloves come off.
True, it’s embarrassing to go out in the group stages, and true, bad performances can be critiqued, but I would love for somebody to explain to me exactly the reason behind New Zealanders’ hatred of England Rugby. (The phenomenon extends to Australia and South Africa, too, in that they also hate the English.)
Several theories have been put to me about this, many of which are possible, if unreasonable. The first is the English as the villains of history, the Evil Empire which laid waste to the globe and its various native peoples. Putting aside for a second the question of what this has to do with sport, let’s pull this one apart:
1) The idea of an English empire is fallacious. The empire was British, that is inclusive of Welsh and Scots. And yet these nations are viewed much differently. Anyone who believes that British ships were crewed solely by Englishmen out for blood and gold needs to re-examine their history.
2) Empires do bad things, but they also do good things. Democracy, roads, welfare and health care don’t create themselves. Is it too obvious to have to point out that many countries would not exist in their current form if not for empire? That the people of the colonies are descended from the people they dislike so vehemently?
3) If hating a country’s team because of what the country did in the past is the done thing, where is the anger for Germany, France, Japan, and Spain, among others? I don’t need to go into any details about the actions of these nations, but if we’re playing the historical blame game, let’s lay all our cards on the table.
4) I mentioned the treatment of aboriginals to an Australian, remarking that in New Zealand we’d treated the Maori much better. He told me that it wasn’t Australians who carried out those acts, it was the British. True enough. So if these acts weren’t committed by anyone currently living, why the resentment to people who are alive today? People don’t hate the Australian team because their ancestors raped and pillaged a nation, so why apply that logic to anyone else? Hating someone for what their great-great-grandpa did is just plain ridiculous.
5) Modern moral superiority is a strange but understandable thing. People feel like, having had all the benefits of a liberal and comfortable upbringing, they nonetheless would have been exemplars of morality in times gone by (a morality that would have been looked upon strangely by many of their contemporaries, note). But your beliefs and moral, unless founded upon solid logical principles, are as flexible as the time and place you are born. Let’s not pretend otherwise.
Dislike of empire is a ridiculous reason to dislike a sports team, but that doesn’t mean there is no truth in the motivation nonetheless. It ties into the idea of a fierce independence, of a country at the bottom of the world forced to survive on its own, and which has done a hell of a job at it. New Zealanders do not like to feel like they belong to anyone, and the idea of still being ruled (even if almost nominally) by someone else’s Queen irks many people. Maybe this is part of it, too.
Then there’s the idea that people who play rugby here are all posh kids, rich kids. Hell, maybe that’s mostly true. If so, could the attitude towards the team be attributed to an aggressive egalitarianism? Or is it just that we hate those with more money than we have? If that is the case, then the All Blacks will be in for some scorn in the near future. Those dudes get paid these days. Or maybe it’s just the ones with rich daddies who’ll be in trouble. To me, the level of dislike aimed at the England team seems disproportionate to the dislike that might be said to accrue when hearing someone with a grammar school accent speak, but there might be truth in this aspect also.
There are other possibilities, of course. An idea that the country when invented the sport and gave so much enjoyment to the world should perhaps be better at it. This doesn’t necessarily hold logically, but then again, since when is hate logical? Or the idea that the team are some kind of threat to our rugby dominance, that even by daring to challenge us they commit some kind of affront? Singing over the haka? Outrage! How dare you drown out our efforts to intimidate you? Let’s face it, when it comes to rugby, Kiwis are often arrogant. We win a lot, sure, but why be dicks about it? Haven’t we learned anything from those obnoxious Man United supporters? And if we’re talking threats, maybe let’s focus on South Africa and Australia, the two teams most likely to beat New Zealand on any given day.
So what’s the answer? Why the hatred towards a sports team? I really want to know. Is it good old-fashioned racism? If so, will someone have the balls to come out and say so?
I have lived in England for ten years. I have family and friends here. I have lived and worked with people who are kind, generous, and loyal. I have met countless English people who speak very highly of New Zealand and its people, and who do us the courtesy of speaking about our home and our teams with respect. Maybe it’s time we did the same.