I’ve just finished reading Foreskin’s Lament, a seminal play from 1980 about rugby culture in New Zealand. It was notable for effectively pulling back the curtain on a mythologised world. Rugby was viewed by many as a game where ordinary men could become heroes, simply through courage and determination. Playwright Greg McGee showed a darker side to the game, rife with shallow bigotry, brutality and cynicism. Has rugby, and the culture surrounding rugby changed much in the intervening three decades?
It is hard to say at club level, though certainly at international level there is far more scrutiny on brutal acts of violence that occur on the field. Witness, for example, the outcry when Andrew Hore punched an opponent, from behind no less. There are other numerous examples of players being banned for striking opponents. Television coverage makes these disciplinary actions possible, video scrutiny from many angles has in all likelihood changed the character of violence on the rugby field.
However, rugby remains a sport in which illegality is defined by getting caught. It would be naïve to think that every act of wanton brutality gets filmed, and especially naïve to believe it always gets witnessed in games at lower levels. When I was doing ethnographic fieldwork last year with a rugby club I heard the coach tell his hooker to headbutt his opposite number in the first scrum. The idea was to make him wary of going in with full force on future scrums, potentially giving up chances to win scrums against the feed.
This echoes the training shed speech made by the coach Tupper in Act 1 of Foreskin’s Lament. He flourishes a muddy boot and exhorts his players to use their boots to “kick the shit out of anything above ground level.” The speech is ostensibly about kicking the ball forward, though the subtext is that if an opposition gets kicked in the head, so be it. The consequences of this mentality end up being dire (no spoilers, read it) and it is safe to say that the vast majority of players don’t go out to deliberately maim each other.
Either way, one aspect of Foreskin’s Lament that doesn’t seem so much a part of rugby culture today is the bigotry. It is rare to hear racial slurs shouted at games, especially compared to sports like football, and homophobia seems less prevalent than it is portrayed in the play. Part of those changes are likely societal rather than directly attributable to rugby itself, the world is a less racist and homophobic place than it was 30 years ago, especially in New Zealand. Rugby culture reflects society, so it is natural that it would have changed with the times.
Anyway, read the play. It will change your understanding of a sport that is integrally part of New Zealand culture, and is dramatically fantastic. The dialogue is sharp, funny and moving. If you ever get the chance, see it live.