Twenty-seven years ago, Trevor McKewen’s book about New Zealand rugby heroes celebrated a stoic, machismo national character. Recently his daughter asked him: would you want your grandsons to read that?
I had always wanted to write a book. For a lot of my early working life, I was a sports journo. So I wrote a sports book. What a surprise.
That was 1992. I was 36 and a father of two daughters and a son.
Rugby tragic Jim Bolger was in the Beehive. It was a time when the Warriors were still a pipedream, when the All Blacks had meekly surrendered the World Cup to Australia the year before and, as a result, rugby stands country-wide flew “Bring Back Buck” banners.
To my surprise, the book did mildly well, going to a second print run to cater for demand.
I puffed my chest out on occasion for a little while, and then put the three copies I had kept for myself into the bookcase where they’ve sat largely undisturbed for more than a quarter of a century.
Occasionally, they’ll catch my eye as I comb the bookcase (I have a lot of sports books) for something to read. Even then, I’ve never felt any urge to pull a copy out and re-read it. After all, I knew what was in it, even if I rarely thought about it.
So other than an occasional fleeting feeling of some sort of mini-achievement that one day the grandkids might look at, I hadn’t really thought about my book for a long, long time.
The title of my book was Real Men Wear Black.
Real. Men. Wear. Black.
The unspoken sub-text: They don’t wear purple. And they most certainly don’t wear pink.
They wear black.
You want evidence, your honour? I submit the All Blacks and the Kiwis league team.
There’s your real men for you.
Men of substance, men of iron – and what colour do they wear? You got it. Black.
My book was dedicated to the “hard men” of rugby and league, the “enforcers” of the game, some of whom had provided lore to the blackness of the jersey by either fear or foul means. The men who would play through anything for their country, their jersey and their team-mates.
Above my introduction, I reprinted two quotes to set the tone for my book.
The first was from an American boxer in the early 1900s named James J Corbett. He said:
“Fight one more round. When your feet are so tired that you have to shuffle back to the centre of the ring, fight one more round. When your arms are so tired that you can hardly lift your hands to come on guard, fight one more round. When your nose is bleeding and your eyes are black and you are so tired that you wish your opponent would crack you on the jaw and put you to sleep, fight one more round – remembering that the man who always fights one more round is never whipped.”
Below that was a quote from famous Welsh and British Lions halfback Gareth Edwards.
“There is something about the blackness of an All Black jersey that sends a shudder through your heart.”
You probably get the drift of my book by now.
There were some bloody stirring tales in there. A lot were old yarns but refreshed by the subjects themselves willingly and openly talking to me, making for curious new takes years on.
Some were interesting. Like Buck Shelford. Once you got past the obligatory “he-got-his-nuts-ripped-off-in-a-test-against-France” story and his levelling of Welshman Huw Lewis at Ballymore in the first World Cup, you learn Shelford was never comfortable with his “enforcer” image.
“In five years with the All Blacks, I was only involved in three punch-ups. And all of them were under provocation,” he lamented.
But mostly the narrative paid nodding and enthusiastic agreement to the laws of the rugby and league jungles.
That included lauding playing through injury and dealing out rough justice.
It was an intriguing project and there was some insight from a group of New Zealanders who were a lot deeper than the caricature image they represented to a generation of Kiwi men who mostly wanted to be them. The generation of men I was writing for.
I interviewed the proud Māori league prop Kevin Tamati in his car outside a club in London in late 1991. He was playing for a club side in north England and was in the capital for a Kiwis-Great Britain Test I was covering.
We had a couple of cans of beer while I recorded his reflections six years on from the most infamous brawl between a Kiwi and an Australian player in either rugby code when he and Greg Dowling slugged it on the sidelines of Lang Park in Brisbane after both were sent off.
But he was troubled by his fearsome reputation and how much the brawl was celebrated above his other achievements in the game. He revealed Dowling had racially sledged him and that had lit a fuse he couldn’t extinguish. He didn’t regret his actions but he genuinely worried about the fight impacting on kids’ actions.
Mostly, however, the book fed the narrative we loved to believe at that time.
You had to be prepared to “piss blood” to wear the All Black jersey, you played through injury because that’s what you’d expect your mate to do, and you were loyal.
Nobody, least of all me regrettably, even thought about the impact of concussion back then. I’m not sure the word was even being used within rugby and league in 1992 let alone openly discussed. We turned those who did play on after head knocks into heroes.
My daughter recently asked me whether I would want my grandsons to read my book. I’ve pondered that.
And the answer is a firm no. It sends so many wrong messages.
The best defence I can mount is that the book is a product of a time and era when we didn’t know better and were encouraged to keep thinking that way.
The personal challenge has been deeper and more reflective. Am I still that same person of almost three decades ago? What are the important virtues to celebrate in manhood? What impact does my personal view have on life lessons for my grandchildren?
Men of my vintage find it hard to change. Often too hard, for reasons we can’t articulate but are somehow entrenched so deeply within us that we can’t move past certain attitudes.
That can be attitudes towards women. Attitudes towards young people. Attitudes towards parenting. Attitudes towards genders. Attitudes towards attitudes.
I find with some men I know that the stubborn refusal is actually hiding bitterness and resentfulness.
Resentfulness because they think that somehow the world moved on and didn’t necessarily include or continue to reward them enough and now isn’t really interested in their view. The generation that drove Brexit. The resentful 50-plus underclass that helped Trump’s improbable rise to the White House.
They say things like, Why can’t our grandsons play rugby? It’s not natural for them to do ballet. Winning a sports championship that requires physical power and presence is the real sign of manhood.
I’ve realised I don’t think that way any more. And I’ve realised a lot of my mates are the same now too. We’ve changed. So has New Zealand.
The proudest I’ve been of the All Blacks in the past 12 months was when TJ Perenara broke the normally impenetrable ranks of NZ Rugby and used social media to make it clear he did not agree with Israel Folau and that he embraced the LBGTQI+ community.
I’m often more impressed nowadays with how Sonny Bill Williams uses his massive Instagram following to send positive messaging on a wide number of important topics than I am with his one-armed off-loads.
It matters to me more how an All Black or Warrior treats a kid than it does how he passes off either side. I want to see the All Blacks putting as much emphasis on reflecting positive support for marginalised and vulnerable communities as they do on overcoming a rush defence.
An All Blacks loss at the World Cup would once have near killed me. If it happens in Japan later this year, I sense I’ll probably be rueful for a few hours before I shrug my shoulders and move on.
And that’s because I’ve come to understand that Real Men don’t have to wear black.
They can if they want to.
But mostly, Real Men keep their hearts and minds open.