Saturday, March 3, 2012

Clone Warriors

When I met my husband, he regularly wore a rugby shirt which he'd won in a competition. He was very proud of the NZ rugby league team they represented. He was so proud of them, I discovered when we got married, that he would get up at midnight or three am to listen to sports radio on the Internet when they were playing. If there was no sports radio available, he would watch diagrams of little stick figures moving around, representing what was happening on a field in the Southern Hemisphere. In Yorkshire, he adopted a local team (Leeds Rhinos) and took our son to see them. But the team in New Zealand remained his first love. I got used to these funny little stick-men, and the wild range of emotions that they aroused in my husband. Since I never saw a real game, and no one else wore their shirts in England, I kind of forgot that this was an actual team, and regarded it as a lovable personal eccentricity, like stamp-collecting or Subbuteo.

Of course, I had to hear about the history of rugby league. This was an ordeal. Hearing about rugby league history is slightly akin to the failed attempt I made, when a teenager travelling around Europe, to get in touch with my Jewish ethnic roots by taking a tour of every Jewish quarter in the capitals we visited. This had to be abandoned when my travel companions pointed out that they were on holiday, and that they had no intention of spending every second day in tears as they listened to another heart-rending tale of ghettos and pogroms. OK, so no one dies in rugby league history, but it is all about being a persecuted minority. Landowners, the British aristocracy, scoff and try to ban this working-class sport. The Nazis and collaborators in France try to stamp it out in favour of rugby union. Then it travels to New Zealand, where the establishment rugby union tries to get it squeezed out. As I was told this story, it was mainly the victim of class prejudice with a smattering of racism thrown in for good measure. Where cricket fans will list off famous innings, rugby league fans will reel off the seven hundred and fifty different ways in which rugby league has been treated badly by the rest of the world. Honestly, it's no fun. I feel like saying "All so sad and serious. Wasn't this supposed to be a game?"

So it was quite strange to go and watch a game, a real one, not fuzzy dots on a computer and not far-off-players in a history. Today we went, as a family, to an actual game. I walked through the gate and felt as if I had walked into a science fiction movie where fiendish sports-mad scientists had cloned my husband a few thousand times. Everyone was wearing Warriors shirts, and everyone - just like him - seemed terribly, terribly interested in whether they won or lost this week. It was like our sittingroom of a weekend, but magnified to the size of a stadium. On the Special Bus, I told the man sitting next to me about my husband's weird habit of staying up all night in England to not watch these guys play. "Good man!" he said enthusiastically. Oh dear Lord, I am surrounded by nutters who think this is normal and sensible behaviour. Then my attention was distracted by my middle son announcing that he didn't want to watch rugby, he wanted to go on an aeroplane instead. A teenage boy in front of us looked at us with mystified scorn. I felt like tapping him on the shoulder, and saying "You know when you complain that your parents are being unreasonable? Have a heart, they will have spent ten or twelve years listening to you coming out with crap like this."

Anyway, we got to the game, and it started, and they all ran around, and when they fell on top of each other we booed, except for the times when we cheered. Sometimes our youngest did both at the same time. Which suggested that he and I understood the game to about the same level. And because I really, really don't understand rugby league, I did some crowd-watching. It was lovely, a very mixed crowd - of countries, cultures, gender, races, accents. It compared very favourably with the crowds for rugby league back in Yorkshire, where monoculturalism still rules, even in towns like Leeds and Bradford which have large ethnic minority communities. This was similar to the still-total segregation of sporting crowds in South Africa fifteen years ago, where my white friends thought I was weird for liking soccer and my black friends wanted to know how this peculiar game called rugby was played. There did not seem to be the same kind of ethnic segregation here. Everyone united by this one passion, which to me remains a complete mystery. My husband, several thousand times. I began pondering, if you filled a stadium with clones of me, what they would be.

I decided that it would be mothers of children with Special Needs. Of course, their stories would be very different, but there would be a shared history of grumpy militancy, a determination to get our kids the best deal they could. I kind of liked the idea of a stadium full of us, all shouting for our kids. Of course, we would all be a bit obsessional, a bit one-sided, a bit TOO intense. Like a passionate sports fan, we would talk about it all too much. And we would occasionally be guilty of staying up late at night to work on our child's paperwork, rather than get some sleep. Yes, quite a few parallels then. Then I noticed that the team - who had been losing badly - were suddenly doing rather better, and for a few minutes it looked as if we could be in with a chance of winning the game. Didn't happen, of course - told you they are a persecuted minority - but for a moment or two it was quite exciting. Almost enough fun to make up for the terrible bus ride home with three exhausted children. I'm sure the other passengers did not rethink their attitude to homicide at all during the Great "But That's MY Beano, you can have the OTHER Beano" Argument. Particularly frustrating as to me the two Beanos looked exactly the same. A bit like when I watch rugby on telly and try to work out whether it is actually union or league.

I am not sure whether rugby league will ever be something I truly love. It is, however, an inevitable part of my life, part of the man that I married, as inseparable from him as his love of coffee. You get to love it, because you love him. And you know, some things, like your children's additional needs, you just get used to, work around, and end up being quite a natural part of your lives. So I am going to continue going and enjoying the games, and enjoying the fact that through my husband's passion I get introduced to a compelely different world. It's fair enough, after all. It's not as if I don't have my obsessions, things I can't live without, things that I have insisted play a dominant part in his world. After all, when we met, he scarcely drank tea....


  1. I've had this argument with your other half before. I love the game, much of my family play it, but, in a British context the "most oppressed sport ever" victimhood of the average RL fan is an absolute joke. This is from someone whose great-grandfather played for Bradford Northern.

    No-one tried to ban RL in the UK. The "aristocracy" actually, in the form of the Earls of Derby (starting with the 17th Earl who was the RFL's honorary president,_17th_Earl_of_Derby), provided the sport with a lot of valuable patronage that got it off the ground. Until the 1990s in Britain RL was on the road to becoming the dominant code, loads of marquee signings from RU (Davies, Offiah etc etc) then they sold out to Murdoch, lost all of its coverage, while in 1991 the RFU sold the World Cup rights to ITV and got loads of coverage. The rest is history.

    What happened in Vichy France was, of course, completely wrong. But, on the other side of the world, somehow in this supposedly oppressed sport became by far the dominant rugby code in Australia and a multi-million dollar industry. Not in NZ - them's the breaks sometimes though. I understand sticking up for your sport but the insane idea that RL has somehow been oppressed when it has simply failed to market itself properly (outside Australia) is laughable.

    Part of the problem here is that RU fans who do want to take a look at the other code get put off by people blaming them for something that happened in Nazi Occupied France. To mention what happened to RL in the same context as the holocaust (as many RL fans seem to do) is a bit offensive IMHO.

  2. I think that is probably true, MP, and I will confess that my eyes start to glaze over when another guy in a flat-cap sits me down, having heard that my son and husband are off to a league game, and says with a gleam in his eye "Have you heard about the history?" I know I am in for half an hour of Vichy and coal-mining history. Not that there are many flat-caps here...
    I am interested that pre-Murdoch it was becoming the dominant code in the UK, that is something I didn't know.

    Something I don't understand, as a nonsporty, is how the rugby league being so strong in Australia, that their international rugby union team is still so good. Is that because a lot of leaguies also play for union, or just because the competitive sporting standards in Australia are so high anyway? I would ask my other half but he's working :-)

  3. On that last question - it goes alongside the question about how such a small population can be so dominant in cricket too. As if rugby wasn't enough (and, to your point, it's not even the rugby format they favour).

    I put it down to Australian fanaticism about sport. And it's really not fair on the rest of the world / us whinging Pom cricket fans. They are just too outdoorsy. They care too much, they practice too hard, and they seem to really like all that exertion. Sweeping generalisations I know but have you met any Aussies (or Kiwis) who didn't like to lollop about throwing a ball or a frisbee? No, me neither.

    I prefer the slightly crap, amateurish English approach: playing as if it doesn't really matter, making comic videos instead of practicing (I'm talking about the Team GB diving boys video), and only having 2 Olympic sized swimming pools in the whole country. I think it's endearing of us not to care enough to really try. I just wish we won a bit more often.

  4. Where I grew up, Wainuiomata (Wellington, NZ), RL is dominant. It has always been staunchely league. But that's not to say Union is looked down on, Wainui has also come up with a few top class union players and in the last decade rhree well known All Blacks - Tana Umaga, Piri Weepu and Neemia Tialata.

    However, despite being surrounded by it I have NO idea what you're going on about with regard to Vichy France and coal mining (but you know what, I think I can live without knowing ...)

  5. Yes I do think that both NZ and Australia have a very enthusiastic approach to participation which just seems weird to us Brits. I remember a rounders game with colleagues in the UK, where people kept coming up to me with puzzlement to comment to me that my husband seemed to be trying really hard to win. It was completely mystifying to them. :-)

  6. And Gipsy, look I am not telling you. See, my lips are sealed :-)

  7. This is a lovely story. The best part is that at least you make an effort and realise how large a part of his life this is. Some wives might just shun the hobby and be completely unwilling to embrace it at all.

  8. Why, thank you! I hadn't seen it in that light at all.
    (To be totally truthful, I did try shunning it for some time: but it became clear that it was a hopeless task. If you can't beat them, join them...)