I have just read a headline in the New Zealand Herald (6 June 2014) in which All Black coach Steve Hansen describes Jerome Kaino as "a caged animal" who will be doing all that he can to prove that he is at home among the big beasts of the international game.
The names given to men's rugby and league teams both fascinate and horrify me – Lions, Bulldogs, Sharks, Cheetahs, Tigers, Kangaroos. If these are not the names of predatory animals then they are names that conjure up violent images, either man or nature-generated, for example, Crusaders, Chiefs, Hurricanes and so on.
I wonder if a harmless nomenclature like the "Blues" explains the relative lack of success enjoyed by Kirwan's men. I have been trying to think of a suitably violent animal to suggest to Sir John but all suitable names seem used up.
The violence that the codes of both games tolerates both on and off the fields is frankly appalling. Spear tackling which I understand is illegal in rugby can lead to permanently disabling injuries. No one seemed too concerned apart from Brian O'Driscoll when All Black Tama Umanga spear-tackled the Irishman in 2005 thereby ensuring he could no longer play in the Lion's tour of the country that year. Umanga branded O'Driscoll as a "sook" in his biography and berated the media for criticising his violent action. The two men were reconciled some four years later.
There has been more than one incident this year of spectator or player attacks on referees. A minority of rugby and league players seem to have few qualms about beating up their partners. And apparently the All Blacks have iconic value for all New Zealanders. The odd visit to Starship Children's Hospital in Auckland does not disguise the fact that players are committed to a violent game. "Physicality" is little more than a coded language that means commentators do not call things by their right name – deliberate violence. In some ways today's spectators have much in common with the spectators at the Coliseum who some two thousand years applauded savage attacks by men and animals on other women and men. I am all in favour of sport and just wish that more and more New Zealanders, particularly young New Zealanders played more sport and played less with Smart Phones and I pads.
In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul writes: "Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified" (1 Cor 9:24-27).
Paul borrows language from the sporting world to remind us about what the imitation of Christ requires of us. Sportsmen and sports commentators in New Zealand turn to the animal world to define themselves. Practice, self-discipline and self -control are important for both the disciple and sportsman. In the case of the first, it is about becoming more Christ-like, in the case of the second it is about being more predatory, anxious to get out of the cage and wreak havoc among the big beasts. Is it time to rethink our use of language because as Marshall McLuhan told us some decades ago, the medium is the message?