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At times it felt as though we were playing two different codes. We saw the paddock as an ever-changing pattern of lines. The Irish, on the other hand, saw the field as a sort of steeplechase, covered with low barriers and walls which as far as they were concerned were there to smash into. They believed in luck. They were like kids taking it in turns to kick a pebble down a bumpy road.
We longed to tell them what they were doing wrong.
I have been to two football games in my life. If you think that’s bad, neither game was even the same kind of football. In 2008 I went to see a Sydney Swans game with my cousin playing at home. Years before then, when I was still a child and to be honest I cannot remember now how old I was, my dad brought me to see Ireland’s international rugby team play in Dublin. I cannot remember who the opposing team was, although I have a strong suspicion we lost. When I was a kid, Ireland seemed to lose a lot of games, regardless of the sport. Stephen Roche winning the Tour de France in 1987 was like the second coming of Christ as far as my dad was concerned, more so because the cyclist had broken our pan-sport losing streak.
What I’m getting at is that sport never really figured largely in my life. Yeah I’ve been to the pub to watch a few games, with the Duke off Grafton Street a great venue for a rugby international if you’re that way inclined, but over the years I simply did not take any interest in sport generally. So to find an historical, if poetic, account of the 1905 All Blacks Originals’ campaign not only readable, but gripping, riveting stuff, was something of a shock.
The opening of the book describes the long sea voyage taken by the New Zealand team, travelling up along the coast of South America, before making a break for the Atlantic. The men take to practicing their manoeuvres on deck. Eventually during a break on shore, they return to the vessel with pumpkins to catch and toss. The women passengers on board stick below deck in the saloon where it is nice and warm. The All Blacks can see each other’s faces freezing in the cold, drifting across a vast ocean travelling further and further away from home. Together they are farmers, civil servants, husbands, miners, bankers, factory workers and amateur sportsmen. Their manager George Dixon instructs them in a series of exercises to build up a team dynamic, such as describing the women in their lives, or if they have none, to imagine one based on the traits described by their fellow players. Throughout the book Dixon invents more and more bizarre bonding exercises, until the team becomes a cohesive whole. Finally the shores of England come into view. Many of the men are descended from immigrants who left the British Isles, some more recently than others. It is a strange homecoming, to a place far away from home.
The second half of the book describes the team’s epic series of wins against local clubs and international teams such as England, Scotland and Ireland (although they run into a spot of bother with the Welsh). As their fame grows, the men measure their fame by the numbers drawn to greet them at the train stations, the sophistication of the menus served to them at dinner, or their column inches in the newspapers. Their meteoric popularity soon eclipses other events in the world, such as massacres in Odessa and war in Japan. The men dressed entirely in black are at the centre of the world for the duration of their tour and defeat becomes a rare experience they are almost curious to experience.
Lloyd mixes history with fiction, prose and poetry, to dizzying effect. There is a telling sequence where the All Blacks team are invited to dine with Oxford scholars, who lecture them on different schools of learning (the haka, they are informed, is similar to the war cry of Achilles). Lloyd’s group-mind narrator states –
What we knew
What we understood
Had no beautiful language at its service
Lacked for artists and sculptors
What we knew was intimate
As instinct or memory
That to me is the central point of this book – to make of the game something alike to Art.