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Old Heroes


Old Heroes is about this period in our history told in part through the reminiscences of a young Warwick Roger, still at school and full of the same wide-eyed wonder and curiosity that characterised the response of most of the population to these polite, handsome, athletic giants from South Africa. For the Springboks came as Gods, held in awe by the rugby fraternity.

Warwick Roger, 1991, Auckland: Hodder and Stoughton

Reviewed by Graeme Bassett, Department of Education, Massey University


It is surprising, given the prominence of Rugby Football in the development of the New Zealand male psyche that so little has been written about its meaning in the context of New Zealand culture. There are of course books about rugby and rugby players, accounts of tours, memoirs of past players, and mud and glory tales of conquest and defeat by journalists such as T.P. McLean. But for the most part these reveal little of the underlying meaning of rugby in the lives of kiwi males, much less the politics that are associated with the game especially in relation to South Africa. Few players speak openly of their feelings, their fears and apprehensions, the pain of injury or the exultation of winning against the odds. While there are many descriptive accounts of the rugby subculture in these books, few writers have attempted to explore the underlying politics nor what rugby means for these young men, nor how it fits within our national culture. In Old Heroes, Warwick Roger has attempted something different. In one sense it is another book about rugby and rugby players and will appeal to a generation of New Zealand males who know who Jones, Skinner, Becker, Jarden and Von Vollenhofen were. But Old Heroes is also about a particular moment in our cultural history when a national innocence prevailed and when for perhaps the last time we experienced a sense of unity and equanimity which now seems all but remote.

In 1956, few New Zealanders had heard of apartheid much less knew what it meant. While most understood that white South Africans had fought for their independence in the Boer Wars, they had no grasp of Afrikaner society beyond the fact that they were vastly outnumbered by black people. Few could have predicted that in less than a decade our awareness of white racism in South Africa would galvanize such opposition against a Springbok rugby tour as to cause widespread confrontation between half the population and a helmeted, baton-wielding police force. In many respects it was the Springbok Tour of 1981 which finally shattered forever the myth of national unity and racial equality in New Zealand. But in 1956, Pakeha society was barely aware of the racism within its own midst, much less the oppression of native peoples in other parts of the world.

Old Heroes is about this period in our history told in part through the reminiscences of a young Warwick Roger, still at school and full of the same wide-eyed wonder and curiosity that characterised the response of most of the population to these polite, handsome, athletic giants from South Africa. For the Springboks came as Gods, held in awe by the rugby fraternity who remembered with feelings of humiliation and disgrace how thoroughly they had beaten the All Blacks who toured South Africa in 1949. Whether true or not, the talk was that the South African referees largely contributed to the All Blacks’ defeat, but there was no getting away from the fact that the Springboks were big, tough and skillful players who approached the game with the same zeal and religious obsession as New Zealanders did.

But lest the reader be lulled into a mistaken nostalgia for a lost innocence or the restoration of the simple myths which prevailed at that time, Warwick Roger explores what has transpired in the lives of these players, coaches, officials and other assorted characters, 35 years later. The result is an absorbing mixture of tragedy and pathos, success and failure where like any other group one could choose, some have achieved `success’ while others have done little since to distinguish themselves from the ordinary. The exigencies of life have inevitably taken their toll. For a few of these men the `heroic’ quality implied in the title of the book is considerably tarnished by the reality of their lives. With others their rugby success was simply an expression of a capacity to succeed in general. Even some of those labelled villains at the time, turn out to be gracious and gentlemanly in their middle age. But there is no escaping the conclusion that the `old heroes’ of 1956 could never again be regarded with the same combination of awe and esteem as they were then. In the end the gods are revealed as mere mortals, some are defiled and others still revered for the qualities they displayed in their athletic youth. Even though they may not be characters of Shakespearian proportions, in the end they reveal the same fatal flaws of traditional literary heroes. Nevertheless Warwick Roger writes of these men with a sympathy and restraint which allows space for readers to make their own judgements. When one `old hero’ refuses to share his memories as an All Black unless he is paid for it, the author simply leaves it at that, relates the conversation and goes on with other accounts. One might say `so what?’ All gods are eventually brought down, the secrets of their mystique revealed, and their human failings finally exposed. But for a generation of New Zealand males the memory of those heady, triumphant winter months in 1956 will remain enshrouded in the nostalgia of the time and the `old heroes’ enjoyed for what they were. For they were after all, only men with a measure of athletic skill and strength than most, who happened to be selected to play rugby football for their country. But in the process they came to represent the aspirations of ordinary blokes and young boys, the majority of whom recognised they had little hope of raising themselves beyond the crowd on the terraces shouting encouragement to their idols.

What becomes clear in this book is just how important rugby football was to the identity of that generation of New Zealand males. It became something approaching a national obsession to beat the Springboks in a belief that this would recover some sense of (male) national pride. Most felt that defeat on the rugby field was above all a challenge to their masculinity. Of course everyone knew it was `just a game’ but for kiwi males it was clear that rugby was also deeply intertwined with their sense of masculinity in ways that went far beyond the playing field. Jock Phillips has made much of this in his history of Pakeha male identity, A Man’s Country (1987). Prowess in rugby was identified with the nation’s military qualities and in 1956 the same analogy was frequently made by both the Springboks and New Zealanders. It was a truism to say that national pride was at stake, for there was a deeply held desire to prove that as men, kiwis were at least equal if not superior to their opponents. In remembering the affable hospitality the Springboks received wherever they went, one of the South African players, Butch Lochner, also noted how on the field it was a different matter. `It was war and we were like enemies’ (Roger, 1991: 105). Similarly Spiro Zavos observes how when the Springboks arrived – `a crusading fever swept the country. It resembled, I imagine, that of France when the first German troops set foot on its soil in the Second World War’ (Roger, 1991: 72-73).

There are many insights into the meaning of rugby for men, but Old Heroes is also about how women regarded these visitors from the veldt. Inevitably there were those who followed the team about the country like the camp followers of military campaigns. There were claims of carefully concealed offspring whose Springbok fathers knew nothing of their existence until many years later. But it is unusual for women to receive much attention in the context of the rugby world so effectively dominated is it by the concerns with manliness and the manly spirit. Yet Warwick Roger relates the anecdotes of these women with a sensitivity that places their meaning in the context of the times and which contemporary feminists would now find curiously naive. At the dances and the socials organised for them the Springboks displayed not only an endearing shyness but also a polite sociability which many New Zealand women found attractive. In spite of the fact that many of them spoke only Afrikaans they seldom avoided social contacts and succeeded in winning the hearts of young women whom previously would never have been inside a rugby clubrooms. It adds nothing to an understanding of this phenomenon to dismiss it in terms of impressionable young women fascinated by these rugby warriors from an exotic, distant land. Undoubtedly something of this was true, but Warwick Roger simply relates the events and lets them speak for themselves. Under the influence of a greater commercialism, women have now become more prominent at rugby games both as cheerleaders and spectators at an event that has increasingly become a wider display incorporating more diverse entertainment values. The current practice of introducing high-kicking women dancers as part of the `entertainment’ can be seen as a more overt statement of the sexual elements which underlie the game itself. But back in 1956, things were more sober. A display of military marching by the local brass band was seen as more in keeping with the dominating male ethos of the time.

If the author retreats from any political judgement, sustained discussion, or detailed debate on many of the issues raised, the book is not by any means neutral or impartial. Interspersed throughout the anecdotes and rugby tales are accounts of racist political events which were simultaneously occurring in South Africa, many of which were ignored by the New Zealand press or received only scant mention. There are references to the Broederbond and hints of its influence within the team but there is seldom any attempt to explore the central racial and political questions associated with rugby in both countries. One is left with the impression that it would have been difficult to have raised such matters with these `old heroes’ without giving offence or being accused of diverting attention from the `real’ meaning of the events surrounding the tour. Ultimately the book is an attempt to capture the mood and feeling of the times and explore how subsequently those events were reflected in the lives of the tellers of the tales. When the New Zealand Maori team lost by 37-0 there was the hint that an opportunity had been lost to prove a racial point, but at the time no one spoke of it in those terms. Yet it would have been interesting to discover more precisely what the nature of the underlying thinking was in racial terms about this event, from both sides. In the light of a recent article by Spiro Zavos (1992: 74-80) in Metro which maintains that rugby has been a civilising influence in race relations in this country, the relative absence of any attempt to explore these issues with the `old heroes’ themselves, is something of a gap in the book. For if as it is claimed, rugby allowed a certain equality to prevail between players in this country it certainly was not on account of any deeply held belief about racial equality. Ultimately it is still merit that counts on the rugby field and any tokenism or privilege has always been effectively ruled out. The equality is clearly not reflected elsewhere in our present society, nor was it in 1956. But the myth of racial harmony and equality was more entrenched then than it is now, and rugby was an important vehicle for perpetuating this myth.

In one sense rugby still remains a refuge from the powerful racism that persists as part of our social and institutional structure and which we are only now beginning to confront. But as with sexism, in 1956 racism too, was barely recognised much less talked about. If by practising as Zavos claims, the doctrine of `inclusion’, rugby provided a model for social equality in the wider community it was also equally guilty of perpetuating the myth of racial harmony. Although it was as true then as it is now that the test of a man’s worth on the rugby field was not his colour or class but his ability, ultimately what happened on the rugby field had little impact on the disadvantagement of Maori people in the society at large. It is only after a good deal of anguish and self reflection that New Zealanders have been able to acknowledge these myths and the rugby `doctrine of inclusion’ has been at least one source of the reluctance of many to do so. For the most part Warwick Roger avoids asking about such matters. Yet it appears that apart from one or two exceptions, few of the 1956 Springboks it seemed, have since done anything to actually oppose apartheid. The racial integration of sport in South Africa has tended to follow rather than precede the more widespread political changes which have created the movement toward racial equality. And why should it be otherwise given that these `old heroes’, while talented rugby players, are mostly `ordinary blokes’ with feet of clay like the rest of us, surviving in their culture as best they can.

One suspects that secretly writers such as Zavos and Roger know this but their love for the game does not allow them to acknowledge it openly. Like most rugby players themselves, they just want to get on with the game without getting bogged down in dirty politics or diverted by the wider issues. But like most writers with an eye for the nuances of the human condition, they also know that life is not so straightforward. For them too, rugby entails more than simply the encounter on the field and they become caught up in the need to defend it just as defiantly as if they were defending themselves. In Travels in Hyper-reality, Umberto Eco (1987: 171) writes of what he calls `sports chatter’ and maintains that in the end it is a means to effectively neutralise the need for political action and debate. `It allows you to take positions, express opinions, suggest solutions, without exposing yourself to arrest, to loyalty oaths, or, in any case, to suspicion’ (ibid). In the final analysis `sports chatter’ is a game which allows the player to play at politics without any political consequences. Yet in truth, Old Heroes is not a book about idle sports chatter, and its author is only too aware of the political game he is involved in even though he is reluctant to explore it. Indeed from the beginning his personal experience of South Africa proves to be at one level, more than he can handle. At Johannesburg his passage through customs and immigration is fraught with official obstruction and intimidation, and is only finally resolved, he suspects, by the intervention of Wilf Rosenberg who was waiting to meet him. He apprehends the sordid squatter townships hidden behind the high fences, and senses the imminent violence and political hostility which lingers beneath the surface. The loneliness and fear he experienced while in South Africa eventually caused him to reorganise his trip and return home early. With modesty and openness he describes his feelings which he declares he could not fully understand, but which he clearly attributes to the racial conditions in that country `where nothing seemed to make sense’ (Roger, 1992: 85). The politics are there alright, but without the pointed condemnation that might have resulted from a different agenda.

It is no secret that there is little love lost between academics who write about sport and sports journalists such as Roger MacLean and Pulenski. In a recent review of Piet de Jong’s Saturday’s Warriors, Palenski pours scorn on the idea that intellectuals can write meaningfully about rugby and the rugby subculture. The assumption is that only those who are closer to the mud and grunt of the rugby field can write with any veracity about the game. But the truth is that intellectuals have a different agenda – to explore the significance of sport and its meaning in the wider cultural and social context. This is the sort of exploration that seldom sells papers and magazines. Readers don’t really want to be assailed with injunctions to take sport seriously or consider it within the complexities of our culture. Yet it often seems as if journalists assume academics have neither experience of the game nor any regard for it. Such is far from the case. It is difficult to go through the trials of adolescence and achieve some measure of masculine maturity in this country without some experience and knowledge of the rugby subculture. In Old Heroes, even intellectuals such as Frank Sargeson, admit to an overwhelming chagrin when at the conclusion of the final game All Black Peter Jones says he is `absolutely buggered’ for the whole nation to hear. Their only regret was that it took a `rugger bugger’ to `purify’ the word itself and confront the censorship of the vernacular which was current for writers at the time. That in itself is significant. For it says something about the prominence in our national life of the rugby subculture and rugby players. It also says something about the basic processes which are finally responsible for making kiwi males what they are, and which was at least for that generation of males in 1956, almost impossible to escape. There is little doubt that at present as in the past, the rugby subculture has much to answer for, with its one-sided emphasis upon toughness, stoicism, and the repression of feeling as an ideal of kiwi masculinity. It is because it still remains a primary site of male identification that it deserves detailed observation and analysis.

In writing Old Heroes Warwick Roger generously acknowledges his debt to Noel Holmes whom he admired as `an ordinary bloke’ and whose book on the 1960 All Black tour of South Africa, Trek Out of Trouble, he regards as “the best sports book written by a New Zealander’. He felt that Holmes’ work was `a political book’ (Roger, 1992: 86), and that consciously or unconsciously Old Heroes was an attempt to write about rugby in a similar vein. To a considerable degree he has been successful in at least presenting the context, even if the social politics are rather subdued and the gender politics all but absent. However in the final analysis Old Heroes is a nostalgic journey into a period which marked `the last days of our innocence’. There is a parallel metaphor here since Warwick Roger was himself approaching adolescence at the same time, marking the beginnings of his own struggle toward maturity. It is questionable whether rugby remains today as significant in the lives of New Zealand males, or as powerful a force in the formation of our national self-identity. If rugby was `pure’ then, it has since become almost completely commodified. As a corporate business where big profits are to be made through advertising and international marketing, rugby bears little resemblance to the way it was represented several decades ago. In 1956 it was mostly through the press and the printed word that our images were created whereas now it is television. In our postmodern age, this may explain why the pleasure of the imagination is greater than the reality, and the nostalgia of the image defies the passage of time.


ECO, Umberto., 1987. Travels in Hyper-reality, London: Picador Press.

PHILLIPS, Jock., 1987. A Man’s Country?, Auckland: Penguin.

ROGER, Warwick., 1991. Old Heroes, Auckland: Hodder and Stoughton.

ROGER, Warwick., 1992. `The Sportswriter’, Metro, January:85-87.

ZAVOS, Spiro., 1992. `Kea Kaha’, Metro, January, 1992: 74-80.

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  1. At the dances and the socials organised for them the Springboks displayed not only an endearing shyness but also a polite sociability which many New Zealand women found attractive. In spite of the fact that many of them spoke only Afrikaans they seldom avoided social contacts and succeeded in winning the hearts of young women whom previously would never have been inside a rugby clubrooms.

    This sounds like a pretty interesting book to get one’s hands on.

    Anyone read it? Patrick?

  2. This is a great article.

    Perhaps we shouldn’t bother at this time of year.

    Perhaps Keo was right 3 years ago, just close the place down over Xmas/New Year?

    Mmmm, perhaps not, I suppose it’s best to just leave it operational with a few threads going and let the few do their thing.

    Just disappointing if there are a few good articles with no response.

    Ahhhh well, always next year.

  3. Personally I haven’t heard of any of those titles. As an aside, all NZ rugby fans have been well aware of rugby in SA being only for the whites all through the dark period.

    We accepted it as a fact of life, even though our lives have always been interwoven with the Maori people. I think it is fair comment to say that most NZ fans were brassed off when we couldn’t take a fully representative team to SA all through those days. In saying that, I can’t recall that it was ever a GREAT talking point – except perhaps for the people with rac ist tendancies. I think it would be impossible for a SA fan to really understand our take on rugby in NZ as it pertained/s to whites/non-whites. It has never been a huge problem in NZ as the whites and the maoris have been as one since the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840. That’s not to say we haven’t always had bigots on both sides, but by and large the union has been very easy to accept and work with.


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