New Zealand Law Society - Film buff and miner’s son probes New Zealand’s rugby obsession

Film buff and miner’s son probes New Zealand’s rugby obsession

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He claims to know the dialogue of Casablanca backwards, but in his latest challenge Greymouth-born Auckland barrister Des Wood sets out to answer the question - Why is New Zealand so good at rugby?

And the teacher, farmer, historian and author reckons he has nailed it.

But he says the answer – to be found in his new book published this month called New Zealand Rugby Country: How The Game Shaped Our Nation - is complicated.

Desmond Anthony (Des) Wood 
“Older than 41”. 
Entry to law
Graduated LLB (Hons) and MA (Hons) from Canterbury University over a number of years. Admitted in 1975.
Barrister in Auckland. 
Speciality area
Civil litigator in property and commercial law.
Des Wood
Des Wood

Here’s what book blogger Graham Beattie has said about Des’ book:

“How a small nation at the foot of the globe achieved and maintains its status at the top of an international sport is integral to the story of this country. Rugby permeates our society and its ethos sums up much of what it means to be a New Zealander. Or does it? Des Wood examines these assertions and explores the narrative of how a nation of four and a half million people became ‘Rugby Country’ in this thoughtful and well-researched book.”

Des says the book happened by osmosis.

After writing and publishing many historical articles over the years, he wrote Fringe of Heaven, the centennial history of Auckland’s Titirangi Golf Club, in 2009.

He also acted around that time for a publishing company in a dispute with an author over a book “and I got to know publishing companies pretty well as a consequence. One of the people called as a witness in that case was author Gordon McLachlan. I cross-examined him and we became good friends.

“In 2012 I was talking to Gordon and he had been asked by Batemans to write a social history of New Zealand rugby. He couldn’t do it, so asked me, and I said yes.

“I think the book – a social history of New Zealand rugby - has turned out pretty well.”

The Webb Ellis ‘myth’

“We were settled just at the end of a period when the games revolution had exploded in England.

“Everybody likes creation myths and rugby union has the biggest creation myth of the lot, which is William Webb Ellis. He did go to Rugby school, but he did not pick up the ball and run with it in 1823. It’s a creation myth. Ellis played cricket rather than rugby.

“Rugby exploded here about the time provincial councils were abolished and rugby moved into areas such as Canterbury, Wellington and Auckland. There was huge rivalry between provinces rather than towns.

“When settler groups came here they brought their own games. James Belich writes about this and I have developed his theme. Settlers wanted to be better at being British than the British.

“In Guyon Espiner’s series on New Zealand Prime Ministers (on RNZ), Jim Bolger says no one in New Zealand has timid ancestors. That’s a wonderful phrase.

“When people came here they were determined not to fail. That developed an edge of competitiveness and that became a quite ruthless means of playing games.

“When the Englishmen came here at the end of the 1880s they couldn’t get over how ruthless New Zealanders were at playing rugby.”

Des says it is in our DNA and it has been retained, along with a number of other reasons, including the development of rugby in schools such as Christ’s College, Te Aute College, St Stephens, and later St Andrews in Christchurch.

Mining family

One of ten kids – five boys, five girls - of an English coal-mining father and Irish Catholic mother, Des’ first love was cricket, at which he represented the West Coast.

“Because it was a coal-mining and timber-milling area we played rugby union on Saturday and rugby league on Sunday.”

Des’ father and grandfather were coal-miners from Durham, in north-east England.

“My grandfather was in the Battle of the Somme and got put over the top to kill the Germans when the Germans had machine guns and our men had little rifles with bayonets.

“He was left for dead on the battlefield at Somme but was brought back with his face shattered. His wife, who had six children, was told he’d been killed in action.

“When he came home in 1919 after being in recovery for six months, she had a complete breakdown, lingered for about five years and died. He said he was having no more of it and came to New Zealand to mine coal on the Coast.

“My father was working at the Strongman mine in 1967 when it blew up. He was pretty smart and he didn’t want to be coalminer for ever, so he did night school in surveying, joined the Ministry of Works and he and two other guys surveyed the Haast Pass.”

The first lawyer in his family, Des went from high school to teachers’ college and taught for a couple of years in Greymouth.

“People told me I had to go up a notch so I put myself through Canterbury University in my early 20s. I had a hankering to do history so did a BA in history and English. At the end of that I looked at law and got an Honours degree in law.”

He worked at Bell Taylor in Christchurch  – “a very Boys’ High firm” – where a partner had been ambassador to Japan – “very National Party, except for me.”

He worked for Derek Quigley, who didn’t expect to get elected as National MP for Rangiora, so Des ended up running his practice.

Des farmed sheep and beef on 80 acres at Ashley, in north Canterbury, built a house there and was chairman of the Rangiora High School board. “I gave up the farming because you can’t drop legal work and race back to the farm to fix something the cattle have put their feet through.

Tough study regime

“After 10 years and nearly working myself to death I decided I hadn’t done enough history and Canterbury University had opened its history faculty to mature students, so I was in the first two.

“I did an MA Honours degree part-time and almost killed myself doing it. I was always very interested in American and New Zealand political history. That’s what I wanted to do.

“I wrote various papers and theses. My big thesis was on what’s called athleticism in Christ’s College, which is the house system a lot of those English style colleges used to put kids into so they controlled them.

“That was my entry into the sort of history that I do. I look at themes and how things happened.

“There was a controversy in Greymouth in the 1920s when the Catholic Bishop of Christchurch was insulted by the Rugby Union and all of the Canterbury Marist team switched from union to league.”

“The Greymouth Marist team went out in sympathy and they switched from union to league over a dispute involving the Payne Trophy. I heard the gossip but was never satisfied, so wrote a paper on it. It was published in the British Sports History Journal.

“You know what Canterbury is like, very us and them. The story reflected a huge sectarian split in Christchurch, where you belong to one of the schools or you don’t. I didn’t, but it didn’t matter because I was ambitious.

“I went out on my own in Christchurch and kept doing commercial court work between writing, but in the late 1990s decided I needed to do law full-time so came to Auckland. Initially I was commuting from Christchurch.

“In my one and only murder trial, I juniored with Christchurch Queen’s Counsel Nigel Hampton in Rotorua. I have always admired K.N. Hampton.”

In 2002 he joined the Australian Society for Sports Historians and the British Sports History Society, where he received encouragement for his research and writing.

Married to Therese Slade, who is also a lawyer in sole practice, the couple have four boys – one a lawyer, one a chemist in the United States, one operations manager at the TSB James Wallace Arts Centre in Auckland and the youngest a chef at the Rockpool Restaurant in Sydney.

Shane, Shane and more Shane

“I am a film historian, particularly American and European films. I know the dialogue of Casablanca backwards. I love Hitchcock, Ridley Scott and George Stevens. Every Christmas when I am buggered I go home, sit myself in front of the TV and play Shane, the 1953 western directed by Stevens, starring Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur and Van Heflin.

“I fell in love with Shane when very young and know the whole dialogue. I like the films of Antony Mann, mainly from the mid-1950s. He developed James Stewart into a tremendous dramatic actor and he did that by putting him into five westerns in a row.

“Of the directors, John Ford painted word pictures nobody else ever could. And he got out of John Wayne one of the best performances I have ever seen of any actor, in the 1956 western The Searchers. A monumental performance.

“My favourite actors include Bette Davis, Meryl Streep and Emily Watson. And I fell in love with the Goon Show – who wouldn’t.”

“Until 2004 I had never been further than Australia, then I discovered Lords (in London) and Paris.”

“Therese speaks French and we have been to Paris seven or eight times in the last few years. We stay at a little hotel down from St Paul’s in Marais Quarter, with a dungeon. We are well-known there.

“The Memorial de la Shoah holocaust museum is just around the corner. The walls are inscribed with the names of all the people rounded up and shipped off to Auschwitz. It is extremely sad and extraordinarily brutal. You stand there and cry.

“My wife plays the violin. I love to sing but I keep my distance.”

“The late jazz and blues singer Eva Cassidy has one of best voices I ever heard. I like folk, Dylan and always the Beatles. I was captured by Leonard Cohen when he came back here. At university I was in a flat and one of the flatmates used to play that So Long Marianne song incessantly. You lived with Cohen in your life.

“I like Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson. You listen to Willie’s voice and think ‘this shouldn’t work’, but it does.

“I’m reading four things at once at the moment. The Invisible Bridge, about the fall of Nixon and rise of Reagan, The Green Road, Sense of an Ending, and I’m re-reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch – one of greatest novels ever written.”

Politics at dinner 

“I used to be a current affairs junkie but now don’t turn the television on because I don’t want to be insulted. We pick up DVDs and recently watched The Fall – compelling, scary but powerfully done.

“My dinner guests would include Benjamin Disraeli, English barrister Edward Marshall Hall – the Great Defender - Kate Sheppard, Peter Fraser, Helen Clark, Norman Kirk – I admired him enormously, he is the last of the great New Zealand Prime Ministers - Lord Denning, and cricketers Denis Compton and Keith Miller – they are not as self-absorbed as most other sports-people but probably too lively for the other prospective guests.

“We would have fish and chips and whitebait, Coast-style. I wouldn’t have any lawyers round.

“One of the reasons I developed all these other interests is you do your job during the day, it’s very exacting and I love doing it but you keep your mind ticking by doing other things.

“I have seen too many lawyers who have no dimension. Too many can’t think outside the bit of paper in front of them - and advocacy is in decline because we now have to present a mountain of paper to the Court.”

“The book should do quite well, it’s never been done before. There’s a section on women because women have been more engaged in rugby union than the Rugby Union allowed for, especially in the latter 19th century. Women have run rugby clubs.”

“I am fascinated by the English country cricket system so an alternative career might have been as a professional cricketer.

“But I’m a glutton for punishment. I went to Harvard Law School last year and did their programme on negotiation and mediation so I have qualifications coming out of my head. I started doing a PhD but had to work for a living.

“I love the law.”

  • New Zealand Rugby Country: How the Game Shaped our Nation, by Des Wood, is published by Batemans, with a recommended retail price of $39.99. Release date June 9.
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