Why was Conrad Smith always praised for his ‘intelligent’ play, while Ma’a Nonu was often branded an ‘imposing physical specimen’? Jamie Wall takes on racial stereotyping in the New Zealand rugby media.
There’s an opening in the archetypes department of NZ rugby. No, not the bashful, camera-shy tight forward. Not even the first five who looks so small you could probably take his lunch money (Aaron Cruden and Damian McKenzie have got that one covered). Even the great Richie McCaw’s place has been somewhat taken by a guy who looks a bit like him (Sam Cane).
Those spots are filled, but a quick glance at the Super Rugby squad lists this year show that for 2016 at least, we’ll be without the University-Type-White-Guy-Centre. First made famous by John Leslie in the 1990s, the position has been the domain of 94-test All Black Conrad Smith for the last decade-and-a-half.
There’s not that much more to the role than having an unkempt hairstyle and an inability to tan. But the benefits are unparalleled: you’ll get a free ride from the media even if you have a bad moment or a below-average season or two. They’ll be way too focused on complimenting your ‘copybook tackling’ and ‘intelligence’ to notice your last impact play was three years ago. In fact, your smarts will be the stuff of legend. Even if others on your team have similar university educations, New Zealand commentators will repeatedly praise you as “one of the game’s most intelligent men”, “singularly intelligent, and “the first one to have an understanding of what’s required”, while noting your qualifications, and crediting them with your rugby success.
On the other hand, you’ll never be called a “physical specimen”, a “healthy physical specimen”, an “imposing physical specimen”, a “big, physical specimen”, or an “unusually threatening physical specimen”. Those descriptions will be reserved for the likes of Ma’a Nonu, Malakai Fekitoa and Sonny-Bill Williams. Despite your unimpressive physique, a post-career job offer will definitely be reserved for you.
Being mostly insulated from harsh criticism means failure won’t stick. It might seem sacrilegious to criticise any part of Smith’s career, but his last couple of seasons with the All Blacks weren’t actually that great. He suffered the ignominy of getting gassed on the outside by English winger Jonny May (whose only other claim to fame is a passing resemblance to Mr. Bean) at Twickenham, then had a terrible time last year against the Springboks in Johannesburg. He was hooked at halftime of the Rugby World Cup final for Sonny-Bill Williams, ending a fantastic test career on a slightly bum note. Most journalists weren’t worried by his bad run of form, opting to brush off any poor games with the observation that ‘it happens’.
Smith has since moved on to play for unfashionable French side Section Paloise, whose uniform looks like some sort of rejected Manawatu concept jersey from 1992. He now appears to be the last of a dying breed. Former Auckland midfielder Hadleigh Parkes had the hairstyle and even a law firm-like name to succeed him, but it’s unlikely he would’ve gotten off the bench for a Super Rugby team. His journeyman-like career led him overseas before Smith had even gone to France.
So maybe this is the end of an era, White Guy Centre could be headed the way of the Thuggish Richard Loe-Like Enforcer. There may be one out there, but it’s unlikely he’ll be making it anywhere near a Super Rugby team without hitting the gym first.
Their loss will be felt most keenly in newsrooms around New Zealand. Our rugby writers will have to look long and hard to find another type of player they can go easy on. Maybe they can turn instead to the NRL, where the archetype of the ‘Professional Australian Warriors Signing’ is showing no sign of disappearing any time soon.