OPINION: Brains vs brawn is a long and tiresome dog whistle some sports commentators use to distinguish white and brown players, and Jamie Wall is tired of it.
Someone just couldn’t bloody help themselves last week. ‘Midfield brains has replaced brawn in the rugby midfield’ - a sadly predictable Stuff column lede read the other day about Ma’a Nonu, Ryan Crotty and their chances for the upcoming test season.
There’s plenty of slow news day narratives in rugby, yet it seems that the intelligence of some midfield backs has been a well of a trope that sports writers and sub editors seem to return to drink from time and again.
Brendan Venter, a Springbok World Cup winning centre, has somehow got a regular column in NZ’s largest online news site in which he makes observations clearly designed to provoke a reaction. Given that he’s gone with some variation on ‘the All Blacks aren’t as dominant as they used to be’ several times already, he dipped into an area of selection that is admittedly up for debate. Unfortunately, his take made about as much sense as a John Mitchell press conference, and the way it was rigged to grab attention felt like it belonged in those dark ages of rugby punditry.
Back then, and up until about the last World Cup, the duality of the midfield was considered to be best when it consisted of a distribution player and a power runner. Most teams in the world would have some sort of variation on this, and for over a decade, Conrad Smith and Nonu were supposedly the All Blacks’ version of it.
A few years back I wrote a satirical piece about Conrad Smith’s retirement from test rugby, noting that no matter what he did, the coverage of him would invariably default to how he was supposedly the ‘smartest player in the game’. The fact that he had a law degree, his ‘copybook’ tackling style and ability to ‘read’ the play, etc. Meanwhile, Nonu was regularly labelled a ‘beast’ with ‘X factor’ that ‘brought physicality’, with his role seemingly to bust his way through the middle.
Except that just plainly isn’t true. While Smith was an excellent player, the constant talk of his intelligence greatly overshadowed that his last couple of seasons in the All Blacks were actually quite poor and he made a couple of glaringly dumb defensive reads in the lead up to the World Cup. Nonu’s prolific career took him past 100 tests and he is still playing at age 36, a barely believable feat that would be utterly impossible if he’d actually just been the wrecking ball that everyone said he was for the better part of his career.
The thing is, most rugby journalists in New Zealand have figured that out - even if it did take 16 years of watching him play. Nonu is now mostly lauded for his longevity and distribution skills that have been on show for the Blues this year, and because if this he is very much the story of the season for Auckland’s long-suffering franchise. If he can break back into the All Blacks, it will be one of the most remarkable sports stories ever.
Which is why it’s so hard to take what the Stuff lede said seriously. Hopefully the reason why they had to get some former Springbok to write it is because no one in New Zealand would put their name to something as backward as that, but it sadly does show just how quickly sports news can devolve into code words for racial generalisation.
It’s no coincidence that the supposed new version of Smith, Ryan Crotty, has been bestowed with the ‘smart player’ tag as well. This is despite the fact that Crotty has been, in a couple of cases severely, knocked out numerous times in the past couple of seasons due to his direct running style at opposition defences. But no, according to Venter, he has the intelligence that the All Blacks need that Nonu supposedly lacks.
This, of course, comes after years of presuming that Maori and Pasifika players didn’t have the ‘temperament’ to play first five, which was only really dispelled recently when Lima Sopoaga emerged as the steadiest 10 in the country behind Beauden Barrett, and now that Richie Mo’unga has been a major reason for the Crusaders winning two Super Rugby titles in a row. It’s just a damn shame that someone with brown skin had to actually make it to that level to prove people wrong in the first place.
Well, not everyone, apparently. There’s a lot of awful sports takes out there, but the most telling thing about using terms like ‘smart’ or ‘beast’ to differentiate rugby players is that even in 2019, it’s still very much a thing to get clicks. That sad thing is, it probably still will be for a while yet.