“Chris, all we can hope really is that you die in a car accident or in some other similar way. Regards, Dave Smith.”
This is an email that arrived in the inbox of New Zealand Herald sports critic Chris Rattue a few days ago. Dave’s oddly polite “regards” aside, it’s nothing out of the ordinary. With the possible exception of Wayne Barnes, Rattue is the most hated man in New Zealand rugby.
In a country where sport functions like religion, Rattue is a heretic of the highest degree. Dan Carter, Sonny Bill, Julian Savea, Manu Vatuvei – most of the greats have been insulted, written off and left for dead by our most contentious critic.
But where did he come from? Why is he so mad? Was he always this way? I gave him a call. To my surprise, he agreed at once to explain himself.
“There was one column that sort of set it all in motion,” he told me, between sips of chai latté. “I had one of those rare experiences where it feels like you’re channeling. There was a Welsh test coming up with the All Blacks and we were getting the same build-up about how Wales were going to be great and break traditions and so on. And at that time, the All Blacks always beat them like 50-3, so it just came pouring out.
“I referred to the Welsh as the ‘village idiots’ of rugby union, and it just went off.”
Rattue received 700 emails overnight. Flying to Australia for work, he was oblivious to the fallout which would soon engulf him – a hysteria that reached the highest echelon of coaching staff and even somehow made the national news.
“What happened was the main newspaper in Cardiff actually ran the column verbatim on the front page,” he says. “It was really strange. I didn’t even know it had been published and I started getting these weird texts. I was thinking ‘I don’t even know what these people are on about’. Then Graham Henry reacted to it, and I thought… I can’t remember what I thought actually.
“It was a very unusual experience, but it certainly in some ways shaped everything that came after it.”
Rattue grew up in Hillsborough, Auckland. In a house without television, he digested the Auckland Star, favouring the sports section with its varied columnists and extensive coverage. A self-described sports nut, the young Rattue haunted grounds across Auckland, following in particular the Ponsonby rugby team.
“My hero was Bryan Williams, and he still is,” says Rattue. “Bryan Williams was a living god to me. I went to a lot of club games, I saw the players that rose into the Auckland team and I loved Auckland. Auckland rugby probably meant more to me, as a kid, than the All Blacks. The All Blacks came from places like the King Country, and I didn’t even know where that was. I loved Auckland, I loved the blue and white hoops. I’m trapped in that time. I still remember the players in those Auckland teams and who they played for and what club and I loved all that. I really loved it.”
Rattue attended Wellington Polytechnic’s journalism school alongside the likes of Mark Sainsbury, Fran O’Sullivan and Steve Braunias, who remembers him as a quiet, handsome kid.
“He was the youngest. He stood out. He stood out for pretty obvious reasons: he was ridiculously handsome. He was incredibly pretty, this very, very pretty boy. He looked like a sort of Māori Mick Jagger [Eds note: Rattue is part American Indian, not Māori]. He was just cool. He was very quiet, very intense. He very much kept to himself. People really liked him, though. He wasn’t a cold fish who people did not dig. Everyone liked Chris.”
For his part, Rattue says Braunias was permanently barefoot with a real Bob Dylan vibe. Both would go on to make a lot of people very angry.
In 1986, after a stint in London, Rattue took a position at the Northern Advocate in Whangarei, before jumping ship to Auckland’s The Sun, a tabloid which operated for just a year in opposition to the Herald. Rattue saw it as a chance to work on a daily newspaper, and to get back onto the sports round. When The Sun inevitably went under, he joined the opposition, mostly covering rugby and league.
He was a solid reporter with obvious talent, a real literary flair, yet his work was missing the contrarian, antagonistic character of the columns that would later whip punters on both sides of the equator into vengeful and hellacious fury. But something changed. After 18 years in the trenches, Rattue was starting to burn out.
“Around 2006, I’d just had enough of covering the round. I was on rugby at the time and it was killing me to be honest,” he says. “I was either going to get what I wanted or leave, because I couldn’t do it anymore. So I went to [editor] Tim Murphy with a proposal, and the basis of it was that the media needed people who weren’t attached to the sports, because they were asking the same people to write news and features as well as critique the sport.
“I said that we needed independent people, and I wanted to be one of them, and he let me do it straight away. He didn’t even quibble or anything. He went ‘right, let’s go for it’. I’m really grateful for that.”
Murphy had witnessed a gradual transition in Rattue’s work, moving from traditional reporting into an unofficial columnist’s role. He saw the value in Rattue’s writing and perspective, but knew there was inherent friction between the critic and the critiqued.
“Chris wrote sports beautifully. But even when he wasn’t seeking a reaction, if he wanted to say what he really thought, he found himself being marginalised by the sports franchises he reported on. It became more difficult to give the unvarnished view that he wanted to give, if he was still having to front up to press conferences and team namings and all that kind of stuff. There was some impatience, some hostility, some kind of wariness about what, the sport felt, was a guy who was reporting alongside them also kicking them in the nuts.”
The newspaper business is tough, however, and it wasn’t all about giving Rattue a cushy gig. “We needed personalities with expertise, you know? Like anything, the best kind of go-to sources are those that have big personalities. For a fair time, we gave his column most of a page, like they do in the Australian newspapers. Chris has never really liked all that profile on him. He’s a low-key sort of fellow.”
Rattue rubs his left earlobe when he’s uncomfortable, and there’s something confessional in the way he speaks. There are long pauses in our conversations, but they drift by easily, more a mutual gathering of thoughts. Rattue is currently on a five-week stay-at-home holiday – he was getting a bit tired – and he plans to paint his house in that time. I offered to help, but he told me our conversations were an excellent excuse not to get started. I suggested the Kingslander pub as a meeting point, but he preferred coffee, so we met at Shaky Isles cafe.
I asked him if he believes everything he writes.
“I do believe it all, but sometimes to get that point across you have to go over here,” he said. “People have accused me of trolling. Well, when you learn to write newspapers you’re taught that the intro is supposed to capture people. It’s been given a negative connotation, but of course you are trying to get attention because you want people to read what you’re writing. Why would you try and hide it? What’s the point of that?”
So does he really hate Dan Carter?
“I think a lot of his career is overrated. That’s what I think about Dan Carter. What he did later in his career represents a lot of things about New Zealand rugby that I don’t like: that it’s all about the All Blacks, and everything below it is simply to be used and abused in the name of the All Blacks.
“When I was brought up, we loved provincial football. I hate what he stood for. I don’t think he even tried to play his best for the Crusaders. He used them as a stepping stone for the All Blacks. But I also think the way he played wasn’t beyond criticism, and I don’t think he played well a lot of the time.”
What about McCaw?
“Well… I like Richie. There’ll never be another one like him. What he did for nearly 150 tests isn’t humanly possible. It’s simply not humanly possible what he did. A lot of his contemporaries retired so long ago we’ve forgotten who they are, and he was still out there doing it. To run on the field with him must have been amazing. You must have kind of felt you were invincible. He played on a broken foot and he didn’t even make a fuss about it. A broken foot!
“I was reading something about Simon Mannering the other day, how he played through these injuries where he should basically be in hospital, and I thought, ‘These are the stories that should be told.’ But if you get time to interview a Super Rugby player, you’re lucky to get five minutes.
“Is there anyone out there who might break the mould? Can you see anyone? If there’s one thing I’d say Richie has had a bad influence on, that’d be it. Couldn’t he have just given us one thing, once?”
McCaw isn’t exactly the only player to limit his contribution to the national discourse. The NZRU has one of the more impressive PR teams in sport, shutting down the personalities of several hundred men every year, leaving sports journos with little more than rugbyisms and the occasional drunken fight to work with. With a censored player base and a restrictive private broadcaster at the helm, things are looking a little too Soviet for Rattue’s liking.
“It’s outrageous, mate, the way they’re blocking the media off from anybody. And when you do get hold of a player, you get five minutes of just nothing. They just talk a load of shit. It’s outrageous. One of my contributions is that I nicknamed the NZRU the Kremlin, and they are under Steve Tew. He is a very fine administrator, but he’s a control freak. They’re control freaks. I think it’s a shame. I hate it, I really hate it.”
And that’s the least of their crimes.
“They’ve taken the game away from the people and, with SANZAR, have created the worst professional competition on the planet.”
A simpler time, when men took to the field in jihad, a holy battle waged in the spirit of the game and sung about in the halls of the local footy club. A bit clichéd, really. Was it honestly so much better when we played footy purely out of love, or pride, or boredom? Rattue admits he has a bias against systems, particularly those with the clout of the NZRU. In a country like New Zealand, where rugby is intertwined with the national identity but effectively owned by an unelected cabal, opportunities for the abuse of power are rampant.
“I trace it back to this: I was adopted, right? I was adopted and brought up in social welfare. Our country is a social welfare state, which I’m really proud of, but I don’t feel the way adoption was carried out back in those days was particularly in tune with a very social welfare state. You were totally cut off from your birth parents. You weren’t allowed any information about them. Come on, is that a social welfare state? So it gave me this natural suspicion of authority that I’ve not been able to shake. It gave me this feeling of being an outsider who didn’t trust the system.”
Rattue talks often of shaping, of motivation. There is an amateur psychologist inside of him, wedged tight between the critic and the philosopher. He’s interested in what drives us, in what we know about ourselves. In what we don’t know. It’s an inherently empathetic mix.
“Chris kept in touch with certain people in our year,” says Braunias. “He felt for them. There was one chap who threw himself under a train – well, actually, he lay there and waited for it at midnight, and Chris was really… he took that really to heart. It was a long time afterwards, but he kept in touch with this chap. He was a loner as well, but there was something about that guy that Chris didn’t have. Chris was stable, very intense, but stable; this guy was turbulent. It’s interesting that he kept in touch and took it so hard. We talked about it one day and it was really noticeable how hard he took this, you know? It wasn’t just ‘…bummer’ – he really felt it.”
But still, he writes with such anger, blaspheming the patron saints of the punters, week after week. Before the 2015 World Cup, Rattue penned his own Satanic Verses, calling for the sacking of Dan Carter and promising doom should his warnings go unheeded. It was a ridiculous call in hindsight, particularly in light of Carter’s crushing 70th minute drop goal in the final against the Wallabies, a kick felt in the groin of fans across Australia.
But even when Rattue is right, he’s wrong. The guy can’t catch a break. I asked him what he made of the response to his work. Why were people so consistently pissed off?
“I think it’s a peculiarly New Zealand thing, in some respects. I do. I still don’t think a lot of New Zealanders understand that the rugby union is a corporation and it’s selling a product to them. They still think it’s a local, folksy rugby crowd who represent all their hopes and dreams and who only have their best interests at heart.
“New Zealanders are quite insecure about the national identity. They get very defensive about anything they feel is sort of non-patriotic. On one side, we have this overly patriotic ‘can’t criticise New Zealand’ crowd, then on the other side you have someone like me, who people deem to be overly critical. We’ve never been strong in that middle ground of putting ourselves into perspective without using a sledgehammer.”
The criticism at times can be vicious. Death threats, death wishes, even the occasional ‘one-outs’. A friend in England recently told Rattue he needed to be careful about some of the things he was saying, out of concern for his physical safety. The Herald bears the brunt of this ire, a barrier Rattue has been infinitely grateful for.
But online, he’s on his own. Tim Murphy has witnessed firsthand the increasingly aggressive public sentiment towards writers.
“Isn’t that the way? People think now that they can just hack into people, generally. It’s almost a cultural thing in the last decade or so, and I guess people also think if you can give it you should take it, so they try and match it. They think, ‘I’ve seen your criticism, and now I’m going to give you one better about yourself, you prick.’ It’s that sort of thing where it ratchets up a bit. Chris doesn’t read a lot of the comments, because he’s a pretty stubborn bugger.”
Rattue concurs, in his own way. Becoming a lodestone for the hatred of the more unreasonable members of an entire sporting fan base wasn’t something they taught at the Wellington Polytechnic. But he has his methods, and he says they’ve worked.
“It is hard to deal with the criticism at first, because no one ever really coaches you on how to deal with that,” he says. “There are some people who are not built to take it, and they shouldn’t do this sort of job. I’ve seen people at work cop criticism from columns and they’ve found it very difficult, but I’ve always been a bit of a loner, I suppose. I never felt I had to be in the in-crowd and I’ve actually shut myself off.
“I don’t see the point in reading a lot of criticism. I don’t go through all of those comments. What’s the point? If you get hurt or angry or whatever, it then starts to shape your thinking. I don’t need my thinking shaped like that.”
And what of his walls? Is it advisable to shut oneself off from the noise, to leave the critics in the stands rather than to drag them, kicking and screaming onto the sand and disembowel them in front of the crowd? I asked Braunias, himself the occasional recipient of a firmly worded letter, what he thought of isolating oneself from the more virulent hatred.
“I’m envious of him for having done it,” says Braunias. “I’ve been much more combative than Chris has, and taken it back to the people who’ve given it, and really regret it. He’s been a lot more mature about it. He’s been that stable outsider who’s got more important things to worry about or to concern himself with than that. He’s not temperamental, is he? He’s down the line.”
Chris Rattue, the outsider looking in. It’s a position which requires an endogenous confidence. Without confidence in your work and your perspective, positive affirmation to the critic is like salt water to the castaway.
“I appreciate all the support I get, because I have been a bit lonely on it at times, when everyone is after you,” says Rattue. “But I think the greatest trap, in a way, is praise. People think that they know you, and that you’re in their gang. People start to praise you and you don’t want to let them down, but they expect certain things from you.
“A guy accused me the other day of changing my mind all the time. Well, I’m quite proud of that. What’s wrong with changing your mind? Sonny Bill Williams, for example: I’ve been very critical of some of his actions, but you can’t go on hating a guy forever. And come on, he’s done some things! I love the way he plays and I’ve copped some biff over that – a lot of ‘Aw, so now you like that guy?’ Well, yeah I do, I love the way he plays. He’s a guy I’d pay to go and watch, but I’m sure there’s some people out there who thought I was in their gang of just being a consistent Sonny Bill hater. They get pissed off, like, ‘Chris seems to like him now, he’s not one of us!’”
More important to Rattue is finding meaning in the work itself. Rattue believes his columns contribute to a dialogue, generating conversation and providing a touchstone for discussion. When unpopular opinions are silenced rather than debated, it sets a dangerous precedent. There are too few dissenting voices as it is, says Rattue.
“I do honestly believe that I’m playing a role in free speech. I do. That might sound conceited but it’s one of my motivations. You’ve just gotta figure out what your job is. I’ve got a fairly clear idea about what I’m supposed to be doing in this job and I’m going to just kind of stick to it, until one day someone taps you on the shoulder and goes ‘We don’t need you anymore’. Because I want to do things that are important, I suppose. I still think what I do is relevant and important.”
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen takes an ironically sympathetic perspective – something occasionally lacking in Rattue’s columns, and certainly lacking in the comments section beneath them.
“Chris is just like all media people, isn’t he? He’s got a job to do,” Hansen says. “Sometimes it can frustrate people, because they don’t like what they write, but they’re really only doing their job. [Rattue] is reasonably strong in his opinion and that’s okay, too. It doesn’t necessarily mean he’s right, but he’s strong in it and he believes in it. It doesn’t mean he’s wrong either, by the way. I just take it with a pinch of salt.”
And that, in essence, is the conundrum.
Throwing stones at stained glass Sonny Bill and pissing in the Dan Carter holy water is never going to make you well loved, but being sycophantic isn’t going to sell papers either. Maybe critics are a little masochistic at heart, a little contrarian.
“You gotta be careful though,” says Rattue. “Recently someone in the industry said to me that maybe I’d started to become a bit of a caricature. I don’t want to say who it was, but I did take it on board. I thought ‘well, maybe’.
“But you get so many confusing messages. What can you do? You’ve just gotta do it the way you’ve set out to do it.”
So who does he listen to?
“I did take on board the caricature comment. But by the same token, you know, I’ve written about a thousand columns, and maybe writing columns is a bit harder than people imagine. When you do it over such a long period of time, you go through ups and downs.
“Mark Watson had me on his show a couple of months ago and he said the prime reason he got me on was because he wanted to sort of humanise me. It was a bit of a shock to hear that. I didn’t think I needed humanising. I think I am human.”
This feature first ran in 1972 magazine by Barkers – produced in collaboration with The Spinoff’s Custom division.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.