“Bullrush,” says Josh Kronfeld, “is rugby without the ball.” David Slack pays tribute to the sport without a point in his warm and wonderfully entertaining book Bullrush!: A Celebration of the Great New Zealand Game.
The finest game of Bullrush you will ever see is three and half minutes long and you will find it on YouTube. Excitement, good-natured ribbing, and the slightest sensation of terror; a squad of Lions and All Blacks on the London Metropolitan Police Rugby ground.
It begins with Tana Umaga alone in the middle entirely untroubled, amused. Along the tryline are 40-odd test rugby players, grinning, poised. ‘Bring it’ says Tana, casually beckoning.
Here they come, all 3200-4000kg of them. Tana sidesteps a little, scanning for his best prospect. Tana’s all over him. McCaw looks back over his shoulder, smirking as he slows down to the try line.
They run again, another couple come down. The middle begins to fill.
Doug Howlett is going fast and hard, ducking, weaving. Richie, loafing, looks across to follow the spectacle. To his complete surprise he’s tackled from behind and down he goes, planted. Never saw it coming.
Tana’s looking a bit puffed as they line up for another go, but he already has half a dozen men alongside him and they all look hungry and keen.
Richie is doing some hard work. One guy after another hits the ground; red, black, doesn’t matter. You bastards are coming down.
Now some huge forwards are tipping over, two or three backs, maybe four or five of them all hanging off you and down you come.
But look at Joe Rokococo! He’s full of running, no trouble. Nobody can get a hand on him.
Slowly, steadily, more of them fill the middle. For a while, it’s red and black, tackling madly, and then almost everyone’s been brought down.
Except for Joe Rokococo. and Brian O’Driscoll alone now on the try line, looking down the field, to a solid wall of test rugby players. How in God’s name do you get past that?
This is what you remember about bullrush. The sheer ridiculous impossibly of it as you get near the end. And yet sometimes someone found a way through.
Will Joe? Will Brian? They come across the line warily. They start to pick up speed. They move faster and faster towards the wall of men and…the video ends.
They were filming it for an Adidas advert. James Sikora’s job was senior manager, Global Sports Marketing. He had a ball that day, he remembers. Everyone did.
No-one had any playing commitments, so they’d all been on the turps the night before. The bus was just full of really really hung-over dudes at 7 o’clock that morning.
The idea was to illustrate how, when it comes down to it, rugby players are the same wherever they’re from. ‘And that’s how it wound up, because you started getting Lions guys on the one side and All Blacks on the same side and Lions and All Blacks guys on the other side. It worked out. It wasn’t All Blacks and Lions – it was a bunch of guys wearing black and red shirts – and having a bit of craic and lovin’ it. Having the time of their lives, hung over as hell, but still loving it.’
At the pre-shoot briefing, the instruction was emphatic: no injuries; we can’t afford any of that. But within 30 minutes of togging up, everyone was into it. Like, seriously. Never mind no hits, no injuries we can’t afford any of that: 20 minutes in, they were just going full on contact. You can’t legislate for some things.
That’s the appeal of the game isn’t it? You want to rise to the challenge. You want to bring the guy down. James: ‘I think it tells you about the guys who play the game. It was schoolboys, it really was. Everyone who was watching it wanted to get out and have a go as well.’
7 o’clock in the morning to 5:30pm. They played ALL DAY. They were highly skilled, the people who’d choreographed it. James: ‘But really choreography went out the window as soon as it started. You’re playing the game. You’re just nailing people.
‘One of the things I loved was McCaw missing a hit on Byron Kelleher and Richie got genuinely pissed about that. Absolutely smoking. If you look at the video you’ll see Richie gets an arm out and Wazza’s just laughing and cackling and McCaw is really, really not happy. And then he just smashes him from behind.’
Bullrush!: A Celebration of the Great New Zealand Game by David Slack (Harper Collins, $24.99) is available at Unity Books.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.