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First XV

Listener – August 26, 2000

A new novel credits the legendary 1905 All Blacks, “The Originals”, with the birth of a nation.

“Our industry was football and experiments with space. 

What we knew 
what we understood 
had no beautiful language at its service 
lacked for artists and sculptors 
what we knew was intimate 
as instinct or memory . . . 

Space was our medium 
our play stuff.”

These are the words of the 1905 All Blacks, “The Originals”, as given to them by Lloyd Jones in his new novel, The Book of Fame (Penguin). It reads, much of it, like a prose poem:

“Think of us as 15 sets of eyes 
pairs of hands and feet 
attached to a single 
central nervous system.”

“I didn’t want the traditional narrative,” explains Jones. “It is too self-contained. I wanted it to sprawl. To let one player run with the narrative at on moment and another player the next.” 

This is a book Jones was well qualified to write. He played first-five at first XV and club level, and was at one time the Listener’s sports columnist, and, at 45, still plays touch rugby every Sunday morning at his local recreation ground in Eastborne. He “wouldn’t think of missing a test match”. At the new Wellington Stadium he watched the current crop of All Blacks go down to Australia by one point; he witnessed their sublime experiment with space come off when Christian Cullen scored his second try. 

But these modern professionals are worlds apart from their legendary predecessors.

“Think about the type of jobs they they did. They were miners, farmers, farriers. Rough-as-guts living, basic fare. And suddenly to go into the world of light, as it were. To a world of civilisation. It would have been absolutely extraordinary for these guys. Leaving the country, hitting a foreign place, arriving in England. George Smith had been there the year before in the world athletic champs and Gallaher had in been in the Boer War, but for the rest of them everything becomes a first-time encounter. 

“Nowadays we don’t have many of those experiences. You run out of them when you’re about 20. Everything for them must have had a zen-like clarity. My God, there’s London, there’s the Portrait Gallery, there are these streets, everything, the size of the buildings, everything was more extraordinary than going to the moon today. Because today everything is familiar to us in a way it couldn’t have been back then. 

“Today we’re kind of weaned on pictures. We know what India’s like without going to India. We know what the bloody moon’s like without going there. Back then, there wasn’t that. It was more difficult to pin things down.”

Over the last few years Lloyd Jones has been making an international reputation for himself. His controversial 1993 novel Biografi (a mix of fact and fiction set in Albania) sold well in Germany. Choo Woo (1998), a shocking story about the sexual abuse of an adolescent girl, caught the imagination of Australian readers. Now a completely different story – also a mix of fact and Jones’s imagination – seems tailor-made for the local market. 

The idea for the novel had its genesis a couple of years ago, says Jones, when fellow writer Vincent O’Sullivan initiated a symposium at the National Library to talk about sport and culture in New Zealand.

“He invited me to present a paper called ‘The Missing Literature’ in which I did a survey of New Zealand sports literature. I found that, given the passion for rugby in this country, there wasn’t a very substantial literature on the game other than tour books and biographies. 

“I said in the paper if anyone was going to write a book about rugby, what about the 1905 Original’s story? I said it was Homeric in the sense that it was our odyssey; a bunch of young, unknown guys sail out of Wellington in July in 1905 in hail. A hundred people see them off. They sail around the world, take on storms, foreign lands, conquests, and come back the following year heroes. There were massive crowds in Queen St. They were met by the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Mayor of Auckland. Then the procession through the country, the outpouring of gratitude – ‘Thank God you guys put us on the map.’ It was this country’s most famous moment up until then. 

“I never believed the Gallipoli thing. About it having a huge impact on our nationalism. It did in Australia. I feel we stole that because of the dearth of identity myths. We had one, we had a beauty, in the settlers’ myth, but that became unfashionable. I always felt the 1905 tour did more, because suddenly we were good at something. We became famous for something. 

“This is heady stuff – this forgotten little colony at the bottom of the world. The post offices would run up a flag on Sunday mornings to indicate to the communities that we’d won again. It had a huge impact.”

* * * 

The Originals played in the British Isles, France and America, losing only to Wales 3-0. They scored 830 points and conceded 39. Jones in part covered their footsteps, read newspapers clippings of game accounts and events around the world at the time. He also pinned up the photographs of the players around him. He was particularly drawn to Southlander Billy Stead.

“I had a soft spot for Stead. I used to play first-five and he played fist-five. Because of the position you have a global view of everything. Whereas, if your head’s down in the scrum, you don’t know what’s going on.”

How much did you glean through the player’s personal diaries?

“There weren’t any. Stead was a prolific writer. When he came back from the tour he wrote for the Southland Times on a part-time basis about rugby. Occasionally one of them would be asked to write a recollection. Billy Wallace was asked by the Sportman’s Sketches to write a recollection of the tour. And that was published in the 1930s in newspaper form. 

“I read that very carefully. I tried to pick out moments in the tour that were important from his sources. And Stead, he was fantastic. He had a wonderful eye for detail that guy. In another life he probably would have been a professional man. He was a bright cookie.”

Who else wrote?

“Eric Harper the winger. He wrote a couple of things for the NZ Herald, and that’s it, except for George Dixon’s diary. And that’s very interesting. On the first few nights when he leaves Wellington he gives personal information about the players. He even says who he likes and doesn’t like. A week later he closes down. He never says anything else of a personal nature again. It’s simply: O’Sullivan’s got boils; this player’s got sunburn; or today we played at Durham, there was a crowd 25,000 and then it’s a description of the match. When I started reading I thought this is extraordinary. If it’s going to carry on like this it’s going to be so revealing about the team. But he closes down.”

Because the more he got to know his team-mates, the more such writing would seem like a betrayal of them?

“I think so. And then he probably thought too, it would very indiscreet to be writing these things down. The whole tone of his diary changes. It’s almost in the form of a letter to his wife to start with. After that it becomes something he just does before he turns in for the night.”

Old photographs also helped Jones flesh out his characterisations.

“They helped the little things. When you look at Charlie ‘Bronco’ Seeling – he’s pretty staunch – then you find out he wouldn’t shovel coal on the SS Rimutaka going over there. It’s so revealing that little detail in itself that you get a sense of what sort of person he might be. 

“And in another way knowing that Bob Deans and Eric Harper used to dip into their pockets each Monday to help out the other players. You get a strong sense of those sort of guys.” 

“When we considered the shape of our game 
we saw the things at work 
that we admired and cultivated 
every man’s involvement and 
a sharing of burden and responsibility. 
When we considered the shape of our game 
we saw an honest engine.”

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