Read of the Week

The Jersey

Peter Bills

Macmillan

Review: Mzoxolo Budaza

Rugby writer Peter Bills is a well-connected man. After four decades on the beat, he has rubbed shoulders with powerful play-makers and passionate peasants – from the big cities to the countryside.

Bills knows a thing or two about rugby and that explains why he was able to come up with this story of New Zealand rugby.

However, as comprehensive as it is, the book has its flaws. I found some of his contacts to be superficial.

New Zealand coach Steve Hansen, in his analysis of South Africa, says the Springboks are the only sports team he knows that doesn’t pick their best team.

“Rugby wasn’t a black man’s sport,” he said. That means, for Hansen, our best team should be an “all white” one.

In The Jersey, Bills traces the story of New Zealand rugby as far back as 1888, when the first group of players to wear the famous All Blacks jersey toured the United Kingdom. As the publisher tells us, this is the story of the first settlers and the indigenous people who shaped what New Zealand is today.

On the rugby field, they were able to bring together qualities of different people – the Pakeha (whites), the Maori and the Pacific Islanders – to forge one All Black team. In fact, Bills dedicates a chapter to the players from the Pacific Islands such as Samoa and Fiji, and the impact they have had on the All Blacks’s success.

South African legend Andre Venter says the difference between New Zealand and other countries came in the modern era, as they are, these days, better at everything they do. And that black jersey is an integral part of their dominance. As Bills puts it, “If ever a single item of sport clothing were revered, with an almost messianic zeal, it is (the jersey)”.

Bills tells us that the Kiwis’s dominance was not necessarily built on beautiful rugby or high levels of sportsmanship. There was, over the years, an element of winning by what one may call “by hook or by crook”.

He backs this argument with examples of violent and dangerous behaviour by All Blacks players. Springbok supporters would find it interesting to read that one of the All Blacks’s lowest points, what Kiwi legends described as a turning point, came here, against the Springboks. The year was 2004 and the All Blacks at the time were on top of their game.

They were, however, sent crashing back to earth by the Springboks, who beat them 40-26 in a tri-nations match, at Ellis Park.

Bills suggests that there was an air of arrogance and an imagined sense of superiority which existed in New Zealand for too long. They thought they were untouchable and, after losing to the Springboks, the players went on what is described as an embarrassing drinking spree – both in their Sandton Hotel and on the flight back home. It became clear that something, in a form of an overhaul, had to be done. And, as a result, most players in that team never wore the All Blacks jersey again.

But, as we have seen over the past 14 years since then, the All Blacks were able to turn their fortunes around. They went on to win two of the next three world cups, in 2011 and 2015 (South Africa won it in 2007).

That leads to the next question the book addresses. With the 2019 Rugby World Cup around the corner, could the All Blacks get better?

The answer is not that straightforward. But if their recent performances are anything to go by, they are indeed a team to beat they are, after all, head and shoulders above everyone else. They’re unstoppable, well, almost. It seems the Springboks have a knack for teaching the All Blacks a lesson.

Who would forget that Saturday morning in October this year, when the Boks humbled the then red-hot All Blacks by 36-32 in Wellington?

That served as a reminder that they are, of course, beatable. And, Bills’ book, in which many people suggest the Kiwis can go on to win their third successive world cup title, was published before that defeat.