We asked former All Black great Bob Burgess to review a new book on his team-mate Keith Murdoch. But then we changed our mind, and asked his wife Linda Burgess to write whatever she wanted about rugby.
A rugby game lasts a whole day. Your father wears a gaberdine raincoat and takes the family to the rugby grounds in New Plymouth. Rugby Park. You have to get there early to get a good spot on the terraces. So first of all you watch tiny little boys milling around the field without much of a clue, then bigger boys, from New Plymouth Boys’ High, then a curtain raiser with grown-ups, then at last it’s Us, playing to keep The Shield. Dad is on his feet. Ref! Ref! Tackle him low! Off! Off!
There must’ve been a packed lunch. Bacon and egg pie? There were probably Minties. And we must have set up a continuous match-spoiling whine because next time there’s a game, Dad relinquishes his fantasy of a happy family having fun together at the footie and we’re dropped off at the picture theatre. There is a mass of other rugby orphans. Towards the end of Robin Hood a vast printed page briefly overtakes the screen. The feet of those among us who can read drum excitedly. We have won. We have kept The Shield.
“Did We win?” I ask Robert if the Hurricanes are playing. But We is a shallow word now. In Taranaki We work on the local farms, in the freezing works, teach in the local schools. We have surnames that I recognise. We aren’t paid lots of money – any money – to move Our families from somewhere else in the world.
Our friends have a car radio. We’re on our way back from a rugby game in Feilding and we turn on the news and it says Robert has been selected to play against The Lions. It’s unexpected: he’s been in the early trial and isn’t in the Possibles vs the Probables. Miss Tomlinson, Senior Mistress at Palmerston North Girls’ High, where I’ve been teaching for the few weeks we’ve been married, says to the girls gathered in the assembly hall on Monday morning, that Mrs Burgess is such a good coach that her husband is in the All Blacks.
The DIC department store in Palmerston North has a huge photo of him in their window, scoring a try. He’s Our Boy!
One of the girls in my 4th form English class tells me she’s heard another girl saying, Your husband, he thinks he’s shit hot.
I go down to Wellington to watch a test match and my friend Sue and I call in on Robert at his hotel. When we ask where his room is, the lift man won’t take us up. But I’m his wife, I say, cravenly. If we let you in, he says, who knows where it’ll end?
Partway through the game someone is knocked out and lies on the ground, so flat he can hardly be seen. I can’t see number 10 anywhere. They put him on a stretcher and cover him with a blanket. A man behind says, “Looks bad.” It is number 10. I scream. It sounds odd even to me, that scream. Cinematic. The man says, “Oh shut up you silly bitch.”
“‘It’s my husband,” I say, and his wife gives him a hard well that’ll teach you whack with her elbow.
A chubby boy in a St John’s Ambulance uniform is sent to find me in the crowd. Make way for Mrs Burgess. Make way for Mrs Burgess. The crowd parts respectfully, mentally composing the story they’ll tell their workmates on Monday. I’m nearly at the bottom of the stand where his body has been taken when the man on the loudspeaker announces Bob is just fine. There’s a roar of a relief and just a hint of disappointment.
The next day at the hospital his bed is surrounded by men in white coats with stethoscopes around their necks. I feel the nausea of fear but as I go in I can see they’re all smiling, and he’s holding court from his bed. He’s wearing hospital pyjamas.
We have our photo in the paper; me at his bedside. The papers make quite a thing of the fact that several of the Lions have visited him in hospital. The British press have taken a shine to him. There’s a profile in The Times: “A Cavalier among the Roundheads.”
“I cried,” says one my 6th form girls, “when Mr Burgess got hurt.”
Years later a woman, collecting for St John’s Ambulance, knocks at our door. “Aren’t you Mrs Burgess?” She says she was on duty that day. “You,” she says, “looked far worse than he did.” She pauses. She says, “You kept saying we’d put the blanket over his head. We hadn’t,” she says. “We wouldn’t have.”
The next year the All Blacks do an internal tour and several of the wives and girlfriends who live within driving distance come to Palmerston North to watch Manawatu play the All Blacks. It’s a freezing mid-week day. There’s an aftermatch function: men only. There’s nowhere for us to go. I approach the door. I say, I have some wives of the All Black team with me, and we would like to come in. Through the comforting cloud of cigarette smoke I can see the players drinking beer, and the officials drinking sterner stuff. The man from the rugby union is resolute. If he lets us in, the floodgates will open. You’ll want fancy stuff to drink, he says. But, he says, moist-eyed with magnanimity, if you’d like to help out in the kitchen with the other ladies, you’re more than welcome.
We go to the pub. Lounge bar of course. About forty years later the same man comes up to me at a Manawatu Rugby reunion. He peers at me through rheumy eyes. “I remember you,” he shouts benevolently. “A women’s libber! After YOU,” he chortles, “We had to let the ladies in!”
They go to Britain and France for four months. A few months earlier they play against Australia and I go to Auckland to watch the game. I have a week off work because I’ve had a miscarriage. At the aftermatch function I talk to some of the other wives and girlfriends and I say, if they get selected, we should go. As a teacher I have eight weeks’ summer holiday and we’re paid in advance. I won’t hang round the All Blacks. I’ve a brother living in the UK, and we’d got friendly with Barry John and Gerald Davies when they were playing for the Lions in NZ. And Cliff Morgan, the gorgeous Cliff Morgan, over here commentating the games on television for the BBC (“Bob Burgess played a fine first international”) has given me an open invitation to stay with them in London.
Eight of us go. Not everybody is happy about it. Some of the older players glower. Some of the wives, especially those suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, openly disapprove. The night before the team leaves, the Rugby Union pays for us to have a night with our husbands in a hotel in Wellington. It’s a first. One of the senior players’ wives, one who isn’t coming, one whose husband is almost feral in his disapproval of those of us who are, says to me, “Well at least I know I can trust him.”
I arrive in time for the first test. I go from Heathrow into London on the tube, dragging my heavy red suitcase that Mum and Dad bought me to go to university, up and down hundreds of stairs. I take the train to Wales.
One night, Robert sneaks me into his hotel. As we go to his room – usually he’s sharing, this time he isn’t – seven or eight All Blacks, all naked or nearly, race past us in the corridor. They’re pushing a vast trolley, stacked neatly with towels and sheets. They’re crowing with the fun of it.
The Captain’s fiancée tells me the owner of the small hotel where she and Ian have snuck away to for a night knocks on their door and asks them to leave. He has reason to believe they’re not married.
I’m walking past New Zealand House and a man walking towards me says – ‘Hey! Aren’t you someone’s wife?’
A tour guide from Palmerston North invites me to join a tour of Edinburgh with a group of New Zealand supporters. As I climb on to the bus he says, ‘We have a special guest today! Three cheers for Mrs Burgess!’
The All Blacks are setting off for a match in their bus and it’s surrounded by demonstrators who don’t believe in sporting contacts with South Africa. Peter Hain gives Robert the thumbs up. From the backseat one of the older players, wearing the black fedora hat that establishes him as Senior, growls ‘Run ‘em over.’
We have Christmas with Cliff Morgan and his family. We go to the American Embassy with him and a small group of his friends to protest about Vietnam. Robert and Cliff discuss whether Robert should wear his All Black blazer. He chooses the dress jacket with the more discreet silver fern. After delivering a letter to the American ambassador, Cliff takes us to the pub with Colin Welland, who I remember from Z Cars, and James Cameron, the first journalist to go into China for decades. I like journalists, I had wanted to be one. I’m forever spilling the beans to Terry McLean, who nabs me whenever he wants someone loose-lipped. James Cameron is so charming, so urbane, so easy to talk to, that it’s bizarre to think he’s my father’s age.
Four of us – well, we’d be called WAGs now – hire a Mini and do a quick tour of Scotland. I’m the only one who wants to see Birnam Wood, just in case Macbeth is around and it starts moving again. We stop for petrol at Loch Ness and one of the others asks the man filling the car if he has seen the monster. His expression shows not the slightest hint that he’s heard this one before.
By then, Keith Murdoch is on his way home. Murdoch looks like a person the casting director of a movie based on a novel by DH Lawrence would snap up. He is dark browed with smouldering, wary eyes. He has a full bottom lip. His eyes would make Lady Chatterley abandon her husband’s wheelchair at the top of a steep slope; his neck and shoulders would make Welsh miners tremble. He likes his beer. He has few words. He has the audacity to score the try that means the All Blacks beat the Welsh. You can beat the Welsh but they never lose. There’s an aftermatch function at Cardiff Arms Park and, Britain being a more civilised place than New Zealand, the ladies are invited.
Murdoch, who later that night will beat up a security guard, has less than a day left in Britain. We stand with our friend Gerald Davies. Gerald too has dark eyes, and though short, he too would be capable of stirring the primordial parts of Lady Chatterley. He can run and dart and swerve and tackle. And, with his English degree from Cambridge, he has language. Murdoch, who has been celebrating, stands with his beer glass in his hand, and he looks mutely down at Gerald, and Gerald is rocking on the balls of his feet, an angry little rooster, and Gerald’s saying, “You’re thick man. Thick.”
As the 70s continue, the country is simmering. One, two, three, four, we don’t want your racist tour becomes a skipping rhyme at our children’s school. Our son, all our friends’ sons, play soccer. Someone throws eggs at our house. It’s not We, anymore, it’s Them. We are on the local HART committee. Our phone sounds thrillingly echo-y and I imagine someone wearing headphones in a room like one in 1984 listening in on my attempts to persuade someone to take someone else’s place on the Play Centre Mother Help roster. We sit in a circle in a friend’s sitting room and a local trade unionist says, “There’s a traitor in this room.” Someone, he says, is telling the police about our movements. I feel a crazy urge to confess. I’ve always been like that – I’ll tell the teacher it’s me who cheated, just to shut them up. I’m so used to prattling on in an ill-considered way that it could well be me, though other than my daughter’s little friend whose father is the community constable, I don’t know anyone in the police. We go home and discuss who the Quisling could be. We have our theories.
Slowly, slowly, rugby works hard at what is probably by then called rebranding itself and we find ourselves back in the fold, or on the edges of the fold. The Rugby Union, who have now adapted to ladies not just in the kitchen at the aftermatch function, run an annual All Black Reunion. There are two free tickets to a test match as long as you go to the dinner the night before. It’s mostly the oldies who take advantage. There’s a better than average dinner at a posh hotel, and the food is brought to the table by elegant young things in beautifully choreographed lines, and everyone wears black, and between courses we stand in silence to remember All Black number six hundred and something, or, tragically, one thousand and something, who has gone to the great playing field in the sky. There’s a cripplingly boring speech. We sit at designated tables, with players from our era, and towards the end we mingle.
It is so unlike anything else we ever go to, that I find myself enjoying it, becoming, even, alarmingly sentimental. In Dunedin last month we are mingling like mad. The room is buzzing. I see one of the wives I haven’t seen in decades, and we shout delightedly at each other, remembering our Scottish trip.
Mingle on. Approaching us is the player whose wife has long ago, it turns out, buggered off, having come to the realisation that she could not, in fact, trust him. He’s ploughing towards Robert. “I suppose you’d call yourself a greenie?” Robert agrees that he would. “A total greenie?” he barks in disbelief. Robert agrees that he is. A minute or two later he’s by me. He’s never warmed to me, not since I organised a bunch of ladies to come to the UK, thereby putting at serious risk that holiest of rules: What goes on tour stays on tour. “I suppose you think coal should stay in the ground then?” He’s old, and damaged, and still angry, and I feel a foolish desire to hug him. I agree, that’s the best place for coal. “Oil then? You don’t want oil?” Be good to do without it, I say. “So!” he yells triumphantly, over the racket of people who have in common having once worn the hallowed jersey. The millionaires and the pensioners, the comfortable and the lost. “So: How. Will. You. Keep. Your. Self. WARM?”
I could start talking about wind and sun and water. At the risk of driving him madder, I could use words like carbon footprint. Sustainable. Climate change.
I could say, make love, not war! Or, I could just let it rest.
Murdoch: The All Black Who Never Returned by Ron Palenski (Upstart Press, $39.99) is available at Unity Books.
The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books, recently named 2020 International Book Store of the Year, London Book Fair.
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