Review: In their heyday they were invulnerable, but now the likes of Piri Weepu and Eroni Clarke are all too human. That’s what makes Match Fit so compelling, says Duncan Greive.
Match Fit is aimed at the more casual class of rugby fan, but its audience would likely bristle at what lies underneath its code-heavy exterior: this is purest reality TV. Only, it’s a game of rugby which is the bachelorette, and injuries replace the rose ceremony. It’s even made by Pango, which makes much of our reality TV.
The idea for the show was created by ex-England football star Harry Redknapp in the UK, and is immediately attractive, taking a grizzled group of former stars who’ve had a few too many beers and pies since hanging up the boots, and tries to get them fit for one last game. It was brought to New Zealand by Bailey Mackey (interviewed here on The Fold), who has strong links to both reality TV (he created Sidewalk Karaoke and The GC) and rugby (he’s president of Ngāti Porou-East Coast and on the board of NZ Rugby), and he’s put together a strong cast of ex-All Blacks, including Piri Weepu, Frank Bunce, Troy Flavell and Kees Meeuws, capped off by host Buck Shelford and coach Graham Henry.
They provide a link back to a different rugby era, when the game really dominated the culture (for better and worse), personalities were bigger and less tightly controlled, and the through line to the amateur days was still palpable.
This is exactly what NZ Rugby needs to do to rediscover its soul and reconnect with the fans it has lost over the last decade, during which the All Blacks brand has swollen to the point it smothers much of what underpins it. Despite the story the country tells itself, most New Zealanders are ultimately casual fans, able to be won over or repelled – humanising the players is key to making the less serious fan feel something for them and their teams.
That’s really what Match Fit is about – showing the vulnerabilities of men who appeared indomitable on the field. The end of a professional athlete’s career has always struck me as one of the most professionally traumatising experiences someone could go through this side of an election defeat. In the cutaways to reintroduce us to the players (another well-worn reality TV trope), they talk about their challenges with mental health, and controlling their relationships with food and alcohol. Almost all are significantly heavier than their playing days, and when they talk about teammates like Jonah Lomu and Norm Berryman, taken before their time, it’s clear that such a fate is not unimaginable for them.
Powerhouse prop Kees Meeuws, nearly 150kg now, has a real fear about him when he talks about his desire to see his mokopuna grow up. Watching it, you know there will be tens of thousands of men, Māori and Pasifika in particular, who are at a similar turning point in their lives. The statistics around their mental and physical health are not good, and it’s to the show’s immense credit that rather than ducking those issues, it seems committed to looking them dead in the eye.
It’s not all so moving. There’s an undeniable humour to watching these one time elite sportsmen shuffling through a “bronco” running test at half the pace of current All Blacks, and even those who never played together have an instant rapport.
Despite that, it also drags at times – an interminable and poorly shot game of touch adds little, while at times the banter is too restrained. I imagine the same format with former NFL or NRL players would be a whole lot funnier.
Interestingly, the show is funded by NZ on Air – the government agency often shies away from reality TV, but evidently saw something in this. It’s intriguing to note the international reality formats deemed worthy of funding (fancy architecture, sports) versus those which aren’t (dating, home renovation). The agency says it’s about what is commercially viable, which is a plausible but not uncomplicated answer, given the number of high profile series which have been postponed or cancelled in recent years.
Still, while public funding for reality television can attract controversy, Match Fit seems unlikely to do so. Only the wilful could fail to grasp the power of the series, the way it takes multiple generations of sporting heroes and shows them figuratively and (almost) literally naked. Even All Blacks struggle, Match Fit says, so it’s OK if you do too. In this era, after this year, that seems about as powerful a message as any cultural product, let alone reality TV, could hope to convey.
Match Fit airs at 7.30pm Tuesdays on Three