Lawyer-historian “enriches the ground” of NZ sports and social history

“This is not a sports book.”


So opens New Zealand, Rugby Country: How the Game Shaped Our Nation, with what author and lawyer Des Wood jokingly describes as his “favourite line in the book”. Timed to publish alongside the Lions’ tour of New Zealand in June, the book will undoubtedly be popular with anyone interested in rugby’s place in New Zealand culture.

Des Wood

Readers may know Mr Wood as an Auckland-based barrister specialising in all aspects of property and commercial law and litigation, trusts, wills and estates, as well as negotiation, arbitration and mediation. But he is also a keen and respected historian, with a particular focus on social history.

Describing himself as a “West Coast, South Island boy” with “two and a bit history qualifications” (from the University of Canterbury – he also recently spent time at Harvard) in addition to his law degree, Mr Wood has “always been heavily interested in New Zealand history and in why things work the way they do”.

“I was a partner in a firm in Christchurch, working myself to death, when I realised I hadn’t quite finished with history.” That epiphany coincided with an initiative by the University of Canterbury to encourage mature students back to study, and he did a Masters with Honours in New Zealand history, with a decided sports history bent to his thesis, “Athleticism at Christ College”.

“Then I kept on writing history articles and a few books as well – it helps to balance out my legal practice. My secret is I don’t sleep,” he jokes.

Bateman commissioned him to write this book as a social history of rugby in New Zealand, combining thoughtful and well-researched discussion with a liberal sprinkle of anecdotes to explore commonly-heard assertions such as “rugby sums up much of what it means to be a New Zealander” and the question of how a small nation at the bottom of the world became “Rugby Country”.

There is no getting away from the reality that for many other New Zealanders, rugby is dear to their hearts – “at the core”, some might say, of New Zealand’s society and history. It has been a big part of Mr Wood’s own life – he played growing up and describes (with the perfect recall of a die-hard fan) his experience of watching the nail-biting 2011 World Cup final at Eden Park. Despite being seated right behind the posts, he was so on edge that he initially thought Stephen Donald had missed the crucial kick that went on to secure the All Blacks’ victory.

And, as he notes in the book, many others have similarly agonising and personal memories of that game: “[I]t seemed … as if all four million were at Eden Park that day … everyone holding their collective breath, watching anxiously through half-closed fingers and disbelieving eyes as their team clung on to the most tenuous of leads.”

But although his favourite photo in the book depicts Richie McCaw following that 2011 win (viewed from above, the All Blacks captain is encircled by fans who appear to be literally yearning towards him), Mr Wood says that New Zealand, Rugby Country is not about “how may tries Richie scored”.

“Rugby is a big part of our cultural identity, but we do need to be careful not to overstate this. This is not a ‘glory book’ – rather, it is about how rugby got here and the ways in which is important to us and our history.” In other words, what is special about this book is the way in which it figuratively “ris[es] from [the] ruck to look around and reflect on what it really is all about”.

The book is split into several sections, beginning with topics such as rugby’s origins and early development, race and demographics, and, importantly, the South African crisis of last century. The discussion is enhanced by the inclusion of photos of key events in rugby history (such as New Zealand’s first test against England in 1904 or a great shot of rugby great George Nepia) that Mr Wood had not seen elsewhere.

As a nation, New Zealand “take[s] pride precisely in a lack of class distinction in [its] citizenry, especially amongst those who play the game”. But what many do not stop to consider is that it was “initially conceived as a game of leisure by and for an elite class-based society 12,000 miles from New Zealand”. How was this to translate to the development of the game here? And although Māori and other ethnicities have now become a prominent presence in rugby in New Zealand, this was not always the case, something that Mr Wood also explores.

Particular attention is paid to what he describes as “the unravelling” – the challenges arising from association, through competition, with a country (South Africa) whose political imperatives “increasingly seemed to be contrary” to New Zealand’s own ideals.

“This issue was to lead not only to division within the country but also open hostility to the ‘national’ game … Both rugby and New Zealand society struggled to adapt … The complexities of race, politics, international relations and responsibility mixed with the core requirements of humanity, were to question the very foundations of all that rugby meant to New Zealanders.”

“It is the longest chapter in the book because I thought it warranted it,” says Mr Wood. “As you will see, I get pretty passionate about it. Why did we keep going to South Africa when we shouldn’t have? I’ve read much of the background and official material about it from the time – there were a lot of lies and deception – New Zealanders were marginalised as a consequence.”

And a lot of people in the legal profession at the time took up arms in one way or another as well: “[T]he legal system rescued the NZRFU when it made an inexplicable and insensitive decision in 1985,” he says in the book. “The material presented at the High Court trial was distressing when it exposed the reasoning behind the NZRFU’s approach to touring South Africa in that year, and it left significant question marks over previous approaches by the union in this whole affair.”

“In this, rugby was shown to be less than everything in the lives of New Zealanders … There were more fundamental and precious things that made New Zealanders what they were that needed to be remembered.”

Other chapters are devoted to the changing nature of the game, including the increased influence and participation of women, the commercialisation and globalisation of the game, and possible challenges ahead.

Mr Wood takes a particularly keen interest in the “rich history” of women’s contributions to the sport. He says that although women were “part of the local and social dimensions of rugby” in centres throughout the country from very early on, they have traditionally been “underestimated” in rugby’s development, something he seeks to redress in this book.

While the role of women was initially confined to making the “afternoon tea” and most histories of the game have focused largely on male players, women have had a “depth of involvement” which “extends far beyond the world of sandwiches and saveloys”. Their boundary-pushing attitude is nicely encapsulated in an anecdote he relates from earlier times when provincial rugby clubs would offer free entry to games for women.

“The idea was that they would only go in the company of gentlemen,” he explains. “But the organisers underestimated New Zealand women and how much more advanced we were in terms of things like women’s suffrage. At an Otago/ Canterbury game in 1899, some 640 women turned up on their own and were required to be let in for free. They were obviously ‘gaming the system’, but it was rugby that got its comeuppance.”

“The participation of women in rugby … has progressed from a strong spectator presence to full female participation,” Mr Wood notes, and he was especially gratified to see former Black Ferns captain Farah Palmer being elected to the board of New Zealand Rugby as its first female member, which occurred just before the book was published.

Mr Wood also takes a look at some long-standing rugby “myths”, including the 1895 fracture within rugby that led to rugby league and the “class-based nonsense” behind this, as well as the “widely held, but quite fictitious, view that William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it in 1823, thus sparking the game into life”. (“I did think that [Tony Collins] had put a stake through the heart of the William Webb Ellis creation myth but that lives on and was present on either side of the wonderful 2015 World Cup tournament,” he says.)

With this undoubtedly thoughtful and insightful treatment of the story of how rugby football fits into New Zealand society, Mr Wood’s book is a must-read for anyone interested in our national game and in New Zealand history.

Book Item

New Zealand, Rugby Country: How the Game Shaped Our Nation will shortly be available from the ADLS Bookstore, priced at $34.77 plus GST ($39.99 incl. GST)* or $31.30 plus GST ($35.99 incl. GST)* for ADLS Members (* plus postage and packaging). To purchase this book, please visit www.adls.org.nz; alternatively, contact the ADLS bookstore by phone: (09) 306 5740, fax: (09) 306 5741 or email: thestore@adls.org.nz

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