Rugby is often regarded as New Zealand’s national sport; although analysis of sporting options and participation rates in schools and clubs may render this assertion as contentious. Nevertheless, rugby has played a crucial role in New Zealand’s economic, social, and political development over the last century or so. Rugby is a looking-glass on New Zealand; the glorious, the despicable, the fatuous, and the fortuitous can be discerned.
Mark Pirie’s work Sidelights – Rugby Poems serves as a personalised account of his relationship with rugby; several poems are remembrances to family members that played rugby in New Zealand at various levels. One suspects that these family members are, as Ron Palenski suggests, in his instructive foreword ‘not himself a great player but a player of a type which made the game great.’
The book is divided into three sections: The Open Side, The Blind Side, and The All Blacks.
In broad-brush terms the poems that feature in The Open Side section relate to the pre-professional era. An era without scientific analysis of every footstep a player makes on the paddock. There is reference to the supposed simplicity of rugby in the poem Rugby Explained. Pirie makes comment on the female rugby experience in the poems Women Playing Rugby and Portia Woodman as a result of his experience as a spectator.
The late Sir Colin Meads was regarded as a chief exponent of the great values of rugby; solitary dedication, humility in victory and defeat, rugby’s after-match function camaraderie. There is reference to this in the poem Heartland Rugby.
Rugby served as a vital morale-boosting pastime during wartime. Pirie recounts that experience of some servicemen during a match in the poem A Letter About The War. Schools are the nurseries for young players in New Zealand. At high schools keen, fit, strong, and fast young players vie for selection into the prestigious First XV. In older and especially boys’ schools, support for the top team is fierce. The poems Two Rugby Epigrams show this. Pirie completes the section with dedicatory poems to his grandfather and mother.
The Blind Side section relates to Pirie’s personal experience of rugby players and matches. As Pirie is a Wellington poet, Hurricanes players, feature as poem topics. The demise of Jerry Collins, the success of Piri Weepu, the crowd adoration of Ma’a Nonu all feature in poems. The poem Patu ’81 is a reference to Merata Mita’s 1983 documentary film on the 1981 Springbok Tour. The last three lines: ‘a girl / watching her parents / cried in my film class’ is indicative of many New Zealand families at the time; fractured, tense, and forthright.
The poem Super Final exposes the common problem of ticket profiteering in the professional era. The poem Sevens recounts a comment that was indicative of the demise of the Wellington Sevens tournament that was ruined by the ‘fun police.’ The poem The Divided Country illustrates the tribalism between the provinces in New Zealand. Chris Laidlaw once wrote that ‘beer and rugby are more or less synonymous.’ Pirie continues this theme in the poem Ode To Molly Malones.
The last section is dedicated to The All Blacks. Prominent modern-day All Blacks feature in a number of poems in this section. Dan Carter, The Exquisite Cory Jane, Kieran Read: Tape Man, and Jonah Lomu are all titles of poems that present and extol the virtues of these players. The poem The Cup describes the time Ritchie McCaw lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in 2011. This poem signifies a major national moment for many New Zealanders. The poem Covered In Boks’ Glory is testament to the All Blacks greatest rival and the muscular battles over nearly a century. The poem Ode, In the Bellevue captures the viewing experience of many followers watching matches in pubs and clubs throughout the country.
The book ends with an epilogue: Two Poems For Tom Lawn. These are ruminations on a grandfather ‘the man I never knew.’ The book is dedicated to Pirie’s late grandfather.
Rugby has changed over the decades and generations to be what it is today. Mark Pirie’s poems are the result of being a match observer, enthusiast, crowd listener, player, and thinker on the effects rugby has on families, players, and New Zealand society. This work is, as the late Bill McLaren often declared, a ‘thundering run.’
Reviewed by C.A.J. Williams
Sidelights Rugby Poems
by Mark Pirie
Published by HeadworX Publishers