One Question Quiz
Greg Bruce: ‘sad loser’ or ‘prize prick’? (Image: Archi Banal)
Greg Bruce: ‘sad loser’ or ‘prize prick’? (Image: Archi Banal)

BooksSeptember 10, 2022

A man, a game, a life, a shambles… a review

Greg Bruce: ‘sad loser’ or ‘prize prick’? (Image: Archi Banal)
Greg Bruce: ‘sad loser’ or ‘prize prick’? (Image: Archi Banal)

Canvas feature writer Greg Bruce reviews Rugby Head, the debut book by Canvas feature writer Greg Bruce.

“Who is Greg Bruce” asked a person on Twitter the other day, “and why would anyone want to buy a book by him?” Like all sick burns, this one derived much of its offensive power from its generous dose of truth. It was a good question and the ideal jumping off point for a discussion about relevance and authority, and the fact no discussion ensued is hardly the fault of the person who tweeted it. 

What he was asking was: How does an author, which is a word derived from “authority”, derive the authority that allows them to become an author, and has Greg Bruce derived sufficient authority to justify him having become one? Rugby Head is Bruce’s first book, and although everyone has to start somewhere, that tweeter’s question hangs naggingly over every page.

Bruce’s day job is feature writer for the Weekend Herald’s lifestyle magazine Canvas, which won best newspaper magazine at last month’s Voyager Media Awards. Although he is one of only two staff writers at the magazine, the judges’ comments mentioned neither him nor any of his work. 

At Canvas, he is best known for writing the type of stories one of his colleagues recently referred to as “interviewing-the-typewriter-type-stuff” – the time he went undercover at Les Mills, the time his mum died, the time he went to New York to become a DJ – but aside from the very occasional sports story, the quantity of which has rapidly and suspiciously increased in the weeks leading up to the publication of this book, he hasn’t exactly established a reputation as an expert on rugby. The only thing he appears to be expert in is himself.

His writing about himself is – like so much of the memoiristic dross published today – excessively confessional. He never misses an opportunity to share some piece of information nobody asked for, nor wanted, perhaps because he believes it will make him more relatable, or popular. But if he thinks stories about his youthful miseries and lack of success with the opposite sex are going to make him any friends, which is another thing he says he’s always had trouble doing, I’ve got some sad and sorry news for him.

The book moves roughly chronologically through his life, but with intermittent leaps backwards and forwards, and occasional imaginative interludes – speculative fictions, revisionist histories and the like. Chapters like “This is Jonah” and “Calling Graham Henry” detail his interactions with those giants of the game during his dark period as a failed sports journalist, but even while discussing how messed up he then was mentally, Bruce appears unsure whether he was a sad loser or a prize prick. 

It’s hard to describe our pasts with anything approaching accuracy, but as radio people like to say: “The most important thing is to have an opinion”. That’s something Bruce consistently fails to do. Every time he appears to be on the verge of having one, it falls through his fingers. How is anyone supposed to know who Greg Bruce is when he doesn’t seem to know himself?

In two recent radio interviews promoting the book, he name-checked Lloyd Jones, whose novel The Book of Fame is the best rugby book ever written, and whose essay The Missing Literature he quoted in multiple grant applications, all of which were rejected. To the casual listener, these references might have appeared casually tossed off, but no self-respecting author tosses anything off without first considering how it will help deliver to them the twin literary baubles of critical acclaim and bestseller status. 

Bruce’s invocation of Jones, far from being incidental, was a carefully considered attempt to buttress his authorial insecurities, a way of levering himself up on the reputation of a legend and of establishing both literary and sporting bona fides. This was virtue signalling of the worst and most exploitative kind, but one thing you couldn’t accuse Bruce of is a failure to self-promote, as you might have already guessed from this gratuitously negative review he’s written of his own book in the third person.

Across Rugby Head’s 256 pages, the author exposes himself time and again as falling far below the threshold of ideal Kiwi masculinity as exemplified by the toughness, talent, stoicism and humility of your Meadses and McCaws. While this kind of admission may hold some appeal for his fellow snowflakes – “I love this book,” effuses John Campbell’s cover blurb – it’s hard to imagine it being much of a hit with Dane Coles.

The best assessment of his book appeared, unsurprisingly, on Twitter, after the recent publication of an extract titled “Dan Carter is making me feel bad about myself”. The tweeter’s summary, in its Colesian entirety: “It’s a particularly sad look into the thoughts of a beta.”

Rugby Head: A man, a game, a life, a shambles… (Penguin NZ, $35) is actually really good and can be ordered from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.

Keep going!