Rugby and a macho culture have long gone hand in hand. So too had – until the 1981 Springbok tour (though the seeds of change were sown long before then) – an almost religious zeal to the game in New Zealand. But as a work in progress – with setbacks here and there – into the 21st Century, a change is coming to rugby about how it deals with social issues that for a time in New Zealand history it was almost taboo to link with rugby.
The seeds were sown many moons before the Springbok Tour. In part they stemmed from New Zealand Government apathy over the Apartheid regime of South Africa. The indifference to how black people were treated was a simmering point of discontent in the late 1970’s after an All Blacks tour of South Africa went ahead in defiance of the United Nations call for a sporting embargo. Seething at the perceived sanctioning of Apartheid by New Zealand, 29 Africans nations boycotted the Montreal Olympics. Four years later, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, desperate not to have a repeat, on their hands warned New Zealand that it might be banned from the Moscow Olympics in 1980 (in the end the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan caused a western boycott – but that is another story).
That change however has met resistance in the rugby fraternity. And because of it, the divisive nature of a sport that can both unify New Zealand and divide it like no other has come to the fore. Losi Filipo’s brutal, totally unjustifiable and – for the victims – potentially life changing assault brought into sharp focus like rabbits caught in headlights, some ugly truths about rugby’s attitude to society at large.
Now is the time to put the foot down and tell New Zealand Rugby that enough is enough. It needs to improve how it handles wider social issues of concern to the public. It needs to acknowledge that it is no more important than any other sport in terms of its rights and responsibilities. The disgusting attacks on four innocent people by Mr Filipo were something he was old enough to know was not only wrong but potentially worthy of a jail sentence, which – had it been handed down – could have finished him as a rugby player.
The people who say – and some of them are friends of mine – that this has nothing to do with rugby, are altogether wrong. Rugby gave this young man a purpose, something to look forward to grow as a result of participating in. And good on it, but playing a sport where players form a fraternity that they would never hurt and begins to take on a cocoon like nature, in terms of insulation from outside issues, does not excuse them from responsibility to society at large. Would they have said the same thing about this had it been a netballer, cricket or hockey player and their fraternities? I suspect not.
And then there is New Zealand Rugby itself. Make no mistake. As rugby commentator Phil Gifford said, the people who run New Zealand Rugby are not fools and have very successful careers. Most probably they are also perfectly good family people with spouses and children for whom they only want the best. But by failing to put Losi Filipo in his place from the outset, these men are failing to set the high standards for their children to look up to that are set for them. Kick the problem to touch as All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen wisely said.
I admire the All Blacks record on the world stage. They are the best team in many more respects than just being the World No. 1 in rugby union. They set admirable standards on and off the field, and for the most part are perfectly good people to meet. But the sport they represent the world so well in has some serious credibility work to do around its place in society and how it interacts if it is to grow in the long term.