Former All Black John Kirwan (L) and veteran rugby commentator Keith Quinn (R)

Sorry Quinny, I’m with JK when it comes to what masculinity means

Rugby commentator Keith Quinn’s call for rugby players to ‘harden up’ shows how much New Zealand’s macho culture has changed since the days he ruled the airwaves, writes Trevor McKewen, author of the book Real Men Wear Black.

I have a confession to make. I am helplessly addicted to the tearjerking TV documentary series Lost and Found.

I kept it secret for a few years. I didn’t want anybody to know that I watched it, clinging to a box of Kleenex like a life buoy in a storm. But then my wife busted me. I was embarrassed. She said it was endearing. So we started watching it together. I still howl harder than her while I watch though.

I worked with the series’ presenter David Lomas way back in 1987 at the short-lived Auckland Sun newspaper. He was a gun hire. He wrote on crime and wrote authoritatively.

I watched with nodding admiration as his career morphed into the avuncular host of strangely compelling television based on the simple concept of seeking to reunite families. His story-telling moved me in unexpected ways. But not just me: I’ve lost count of the times when I have quietly confessed my addiction, only to discover nodding admission from like minds. “Oh, you watch it too!”.

I told Lomas so when I bumped into him, for the first time in decades, at the pub last year.

Given my background in sport, not surprisingly our conversation turned to what would be instant gold in New Zealand television – an All Black story of heart-pulling proportions. We were both aware of at least one famous untold yarn. David had gone there, he’d chased the story. The player was uncomfortable. His view was respected and the story remains untold.

When I first saw Keith Quinn’s tweet telling blokes to “harden up” I thought of David and what he would make of it all. I also knew instantly there would be a gathering shit storm for New Zealand’s most famous rugby commentator.

It was a debate stirred by Argentina’s passionate response in the immediate aftermath of their historic first win over the All Blacks. Coach Mario Ledesma and his players cried.

“Harden up!” Quinn said. Although I suspect it was said with an initial tongue poked into cheek, it went down like a rumbling fart from grandad at the family reunion.

‘Quinny’ is not a malicious person, a point immediately acknowledged by the obvious go-to commentator for the media on this sort of fodder, Sir John Kirwan.

But, as JK pointedly noted, he was of a “certain generation” – a male generation encouraged to suppress emotion. A generation that Kirwan himself had grown up influenced and pressured by what it believed manhood represented.

JK’s tweet that he had cried seeing the Argentinians cry was a kind rebuttal to Quinn and the latter gracefully acknowledged that his wording might have been a bit clumsy.

Kirwan has done more than any single individual I can think of to persuade New Zealanders that mental health is to be taken seriously. I remember his first “harden up is the worst thing you can be told to do” TV commercial. I’ll be honest here: I wondered if JK was a little, well, soft.

But as life changed for me, often unexpectedly and in ways that challenged how I saw and felt about myself, I came to understand what JK was on about.

I wrote about my own personal journey in this space in The Spinoff last year and was surprised by the feedback and reaction. Some hardened male mates consider me “woke” now. I might have been influenced by their opinion a few years back, but not now. I found many more of my friends believe in a new way of being a man. Life changed us.

A group of us lost a close mate to bowel cancer last year at only 55. It profoundly impacted all of us. I then lost my younger brother to the same disease at the same age in July this year. A third close surfing mate fell at 52 in September. It has rocked me to the core but also reminded me of the important things in life.

I teared up when the Pumas coach and his players cried. As disappointed as I was in the All Blacks’ performance, I took pride in what the victory meant to the Pumas and Argentina. The emotion stayed with me the next day when I read how the Argentinian national media had celebrated the triumph, high up in the news bulletins, seizing on a much needed but meritorious moment in history.

That so many Argentinians revelled in a moment that was akin to a win by Iceland over Brazil in football inherently acknowledges the almost surreal standing of the All Blacks in world sports lore.

That is an achievement that should be celebrated. But we need more than that.

I have seven grandchildren. I want them to live in a kinder world. I don’t want them to be told not to cry when they feel emotion. And I don’t want them to be told being a man is closing yourself off to the world. I am still learning in my 60s and I’ve found it’s never too late to say – I was wrong, I know better now and I can do better now.

What’s happened to bloke-ism? That’s the wrong question. “Blokes of today” know life is short. Tell your friends you love them, set a good example for your grandkids, learn from the generations that have come after us – and cry when you feel sadness, relief, joy or triumph.

The measure of a man isn’t in how much he hides his feelings, it’s in how much he embraces them and is the full person he’s meant to be.




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