For a moment, hierarchies (historical, economic, political) are turned upside down. It is a brief glimpse of the day when the last shall be first | A Reflection by Tony Seed
(August 3) – You must be watching the Olympics. Did you chance to watch any of the Rugby Sevens matches?
I remembered the first time I had the occasion to watch rugby back in the days of black-and-white TV. I was enthralled by the Welsh rugby matches, the dexterity of their fly backs and the sheer spectacle of 70,000 people in a stadium collectively singing Welsh songs non-stop. I regretted never being introduced to the sport and instead was channeled into playing football. The origins and evolution of Canadian football is tied to Canadian and British rugby: you can see the evidence in the fatter size of the Canadian football in comparison to the smaller ball of the bastardized and militarized American game. The Canadian Football League (CFL, formed in 1956) even had some Canadian players – they are in the minority and officially classified negatively as “non-imports”! – who could drop kick field goals. Jan Carinci of the Toronto Argos was the last to do so about 20 years ago.
Rugby fanatics describe their sport as “thinking man’s football”; apart from the conceit, they are right. Plays are never sent in from the sidelines in contrast to football which has lost its pace and creativity; the head coach aims to control every play, and players are even forbidden to lateral the ball unless part of a designed play. I quit football when I was 17 for various reasons, although I had been invited to try out for the London Lords of the Ontario Rugby Football League (a semi-pro farm league of the CFL): one was repeated injuries (concussion, ruptured kidney, cracked ribs, broken leg, thumbs awry), some due to the kind of armoured equipment one has to wear; or that having been advanced in school and tall for my age I was playing against young men 2-5 years older than myself and 20-50 pounds heavier; or more likely the pervasive narcissistic macho jock culture and winning is everything ethos. Participating in the youth and student movement for social change of the Sixties became simply more important for me. But I never lost my passion for sport.
Rugby nevertheless is a team sport of overwhelming physical firepower, as in the organization of the scrum, and, in Canada – controversial. Rugby largely originates with the humble commoners of Britain, only to be appropriated by the ruling elite. The collective spirit and organization of the industrial working class is reflected athletically in its offensive and defensive mass formations such as the scrum and the fluid teamwork and sacrifice demanded of players on the fly. The first organized match held in Canada was by occupying British troops in Montreal in 1865 but it was Victorian cricket which was decreed the so-called national sport of the neo-colonial confederation of 1867. Some 50,000 Canadians or more now participate in the sport of whom Harper’s defence minister Peter MacKay was the most notorious. Nova Scotia briefly banned high school rugby in May 2019 when a youth was injured, Rugby Canada whose sponsors include The Globe and Mail has been wracked by detailed allegations of bullying and harassment of Women Seven’s players, and a fly-by-night professional franchise, Toronto Wolfpack owned by an Australian mining magnate, went belly up during the pandemic without paying its players and without punishment. The Toronto Arrows participate in a professional US league, Major League Rugby.
Like too many other sports in Canada, rugby lacks both a national league, national funding and a national character in its style of play. Big capital and the government has tilted the playing field to sports and athletes it deems “major” and “winners” whom they demand to “own the podium” – or else. The majority of those wearing the Canadian shirt are amateurs. Many players have to pay their own way or go into debt to compete. Those wishing to play and develop their skills full-time are encouraged to emigrate and find employment with European clubs or scholarships with US NCAA universities. This talent drain, like the brain drain, is presented as “natural,” even “a great opportunity.” The European-based professionals cannot always afford to leave their clubs to play for Canada; if they can, what time do they have to train with and form a genuinely national team?
Rugby Sevens is a far more exciting version than traditional Eurocentric rugby. Pierre Soublière recently pointed out on Facebook that it also gives the novitiate who had no contact with the sport when growing up an idea how rugby itself is played.
Seven-a-side men’s and women’s rugby was only added by the IOC to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The play is very fluid, innovative and physically demanding and the collective teamwork and decision-making on the fly can be phenomenal. Although rugby has an endurance component like cycling, it is similar to soccer/football in that it has game-defining moments of tackles, interceptions, dribbles and ultimately goals. It is mostly characterised by explosive, dynamic movements involving accelerations, decelerations, sharp changes of direction and physical contact. A player is likely to be able to execute speeds of over eight to nine metres per second, while changing direction and riding a tackle then recovering and repeating similar actions 20-30 times per game. The games are very short, two 12-minute periods and I have no idea how many kilometres a player covers per game (remember soccer players cover 10-15km every game!). It is an indictment of the sports media that it takes the Olympics to feature this sport – amongst many others – to Canadians who are saturated with commercialized US sport with their handful of Canadian-based annexationist franchises masquerading as “Canada’s team.” The Toronto Wolfpack had to pay to have their home matches broadcast on Global TV. Canadian soccer can only be found on SoccerOne, owned by Mediapro, a Chinese multinational. Rogers Sportsnet, home of the Rogers-owned Blue Jays and a CBC rights partner, even broadcast the Canada-Britain men’s field hockey game. I watched several of both the men’s and women’s sevens, above all the gold medal match between Fiji and New Zealand.
Yes, Fiji. A small nation consisting of an archipelago of some 300 islands (100 populated) in the South Pacific, which is filling up with the naval ships of the warmongering powers, and whose government came to power in a coup by the US and Australian-financed military. Its current population is 903,422 of whom some 35 per cent are Indian in origin. About 87 per of the total population live on the two major islands, Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. I have written before that the Olympics and World Cups are one of the few venues where small countries are able to exhibit their right to be on a world stage apart from the United Nations General Assembly. Nevertheless, their national teams have come to be derided by the monopoly media as so-called “minnows,” “developing” sides and other equally patronizing, chauvinistic and nonsensical terms. In the imperialist division of labour, the Minnows in the southern hemisphere are tasked, without the slightest doubt, to be the feeding ground of the transnational Shark.
In Janan Fiji won a gold medal at the Olympic Men’s Sevens for the second time in a row over the famous All Blacks by a decisive 27-12 score. That gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics was its first medal of any colour. In parallel, the New Zealand Ferns in Tokyo captured the Women’s Sevens – over Fiji.
Both Fiji and New Zealand have something in common too: they openly protest against the recruitment of their skilled athletes by European professional clubs, what the Cubans rightly call systematic talent theft from that small island nation and the developing countries. And both Fiji and New Zealand sing like no one else.
The New Zealand All Blacks are known for the most powerful and vibrant sports chant in the world, the famed Haka of the Māori people, a war cry and dance from the early 1800s. And what a song! In the rousing dance, the entire team of 15 players line up on the pitch opposite their rivals and act out a ritual that was once used by Māori tribesmen to celebrate their survival in battle. Performed in Māori, the Ka Mate haka ends with the lyrical call for unity:
… RA! UPANE! KA UPANE!
Sun! Together! All together …!
Peace. We are all working in harmony, side by side,
A UPANE! KA UPANE!
Together! All together …!
Moving in unison like the hairs on our chief’s legs
WHITI TE RA!
To sun shines!
To prolong these sunny days of peace.
But conditions arising from the bowels of New Zealand neoliberalism – and the old super-myth of “the best race relations in the world” and the persistent modern notion that “we are all one people” – trump song, the same system that is delivering the blows from which the peoples of Oceania suffer and which threaten the sunny days of peace.
Aotearoa New Zealand does field more indigenous athletes in one rugby side in one tournament than Canada has in all Olympian sports over the past decade and more, and it boasts all-Māori teams. But it is to be remembered that the indomitable Haka, performed since 1905 by the All Blacks before the start of every international match, was as stolen and co-opted as Māori sovereignty, humanity, dignity, culture and land. The Māori have demanded it back, forcing the All Blacks to come up with a modified version. And it was the All Blacks who defied the international sports boycott of racist and fascist South Africa
Now that island is also the target of imperialist plunder and the “pivot to Asia”, as its strategic ports were during the 1980s as a base for the predatory US nuclear fleet of Pacific Command.
Aotearoa New Zealand is a small capitalist country with a developed rugby infrastructure. In 2011 it hosted the Rugby World Cup of the International Rugby Board, the governing body which sets the terms of competition and the price at which everything is put up for sale to the highest bidder. It took all the revenues despite the construction of expensive new stadiums. The United Kingdom alone has eight of the IRB’s 26 seats (England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland with two each), which governs 97 full member nations. In that tournament, the IRB timetabled the leading countries in prime-time, weekend slots to maximize commercial revenue over a seven-week-event, in line with the demands and requirements of the global media corporations such as Murdoch’s News Corporation, Sky TV and NBC Sports and Universal Sport in the USA. It scheduled English teams with a seven-day break between matches and Samoa with three, showing the absence of equity and a level playing field. When Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu, a centre for Samoa (who also played for Gloucester) denounced the schedule for second-tier sides as “like the holocaust, like apartheid”– “#IRB, Stop exploiting my people… Please, all we ask, is fairness. If they [Wales] get a week, give us a week. Simple. #equity #justice” – he was sanctioned.
But even the All Blacks, who reinvented themselves as the biggest brand in world rugby in exchange for millions from the German Adidas sporting goods monopoly – they wore a new high tech jersey designed by Adidas that weighed one third less than the traditional jersey – used that World Cup “to mount a counter-offensive against the northern hemisphere, the home of the international game and the richest union in the world, the Rugby Football Union in Britain,” reported the London Guardian at the time, for talent theft. “Our players continue to be the most sought after,” the head of the New Zealand Rugby Union declared. “We supply 39 players to this tournament on top of the 30 All Blacks. We are the largest exporter.” 
Despite its peculiar imperial history, rugby is a national sport and passion of Samoa, Fiji and Tonga and other Pacific island nations; regardless of their small populations, forced to share one vote on the IRB, they are extremely skilled, proud and a potent force on the pitch no less than the rich European organizations – Britain, France and Italy have professional leagues – each of which have powerful corporate sponsors such as Nike and Adidas. The Fiji Rugby Union has won the world champion seven’s on several occasions and is the only team to tour New Zealand unbeaten. It has thrice reached the semi-finals of the Rugby League World Cup, in 2008, 2013 and 2017. Next to sugar, rugby players are said to be its largest commodity export.
Back on Easter Monday, their coach called the Fijian squad into a five-day training camp. On their second day there they were told the country was going into lockdown against the coronavirus which has devastated the island now under curfew, and that they would be staying on indefinitely. They have not seen their families since. They spent most of that time shut up in a hostel in Suva, training in a gym they built in the garage. They had to get to Tokyo by lying on a freight plane full of frozen fish due to COVID restrictions on commercial flights – basically riding as cargo along with athletes from several other Pacific countries in order to take their shot – while US basketball players flew over in a private jet. Some of the players had never been off the islands.
Their celebration was moving and a joy to watch.
Fiji sang. The players formed a team huddle in the middle of the pitch and burst into song. This was loud, harmonic and beautiful singing of the traditional song “E Da Sa Qaqa.”
The song points to how they have overcome, and indeed, what it is they have overcome.
Here are the 4 lines of the song,
We have overcome
We have overcome
By the blood of the lamb
And the word of the Lord
The words are a quotation from the Christian Bible, “And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony.” (Revelation 12:11) Their captain Jerry Tuwai is quoted as saying, “We always start with our prayers and songs, and we always end with our prayers and songs, and that song says that our God is a loving God, and that while we always tend to go stray from what he expects from us, he still loves us, and gives us good things.” They are declaring the force of a high ideal animating human agency and honouring their people’s collective strength.
The hardened Anglo-American sports media immediately appropriated and decontextulized the moment. It was a good feeling moment of the Olympics in the style of Horatio Alger, perhaps because the NATO bloc has just advanced strategic Fiji to the head of the UN Human Rights Council.
The medal ceremony was poignant. The camaraderie and bonds of friendship amongst all the athletes including Argentina which took the bronze medal was clearly evident and exceptional.
And Argentina, which beat Great Britain, was also singing through their final as well, managing to drown out their stadium’s public address.
For a moment, hierarchies (historical, economic, political) are turned upside down. It is a brief glimpse of the day when the last shall be first. Moments like these may be fleeting, but they are one of the reasons why we look forward to sporting contests like the Olympics and world cups and a level playing field. It does one good to see giants knocked from their perches and to envision an island of the sunny days of peace and friendship amongst peoples. … RA! UPANE! KA UPANE!
While watching the gold medal match, for some odd reason I began thinking of another football comrade of mine, Mark Daye of Halifax, who played for the junior Regina Hilltops as a youth. Much later in life, in 2005, he asked me to join in assisting him to coach the famous North End Argos, a team of young youth from working class families; due to responsibilities from my work, I wasn’t much help. Both Mark and Ruth’s sons, Mark Jr and Bradley, were fine athletes and Brad went on to coach with the Toronto Argos. Mark somehow came to mind watching that gold medal match between New Zealand and Fjii.
Perhaps Mark came to mind because he had the same build or physique as some of their athletes – or that he was never intimated by big powers . . . or that it was simply the infectious smile of one of the players. Mark as a running back had the same shiftiness, acceleration, power and toughness of these rugby athletes. If he had been born 50 years later I am sure he would have been an Olympian. He is one of many former athletes I have been fortunate to know who uphold the Olympic ideals of sportsmanship and friendship amongst competitors, regardless of national and racial origin. And I say that never having seen him play!!!
1. Some of these points were made in articles written at the time on the 2011 Rugby World Cup. See Tony Seed, “Sport Today: What can we learn from the World Rugby Cup?,” and “About rugby and the World Rugby Cup,” October 4, 2011, Canadian Charger, October 4, 2011.
See also Paul Rees, “Rugby World Cup 2011: New Zealand tells Europe to stop poaching stars,” Guardian, 27 September 2011.
“Europe is draining Africa of football talent,” 19 May 2010, “Friendship First, Competition Second” website.
On New Zealand, the 2011 World Cup, the All Blacks, Adidas and neoliberal nation branding, see especially Anne Begg, “Our Stadium of Four Million”, New Zealand Journal of Media Studies, 13.2 (2012): 32-45. https://medianz.otago.ac.nz/medianz/article/viewFile/14/13. I have just come across this detailed paper ten years later and wish to take this occasion to publicly thank Ms Begg for her extensive quoting from my analysis and to congratulate her on her paper.
2.The Great Britain rugby players complained that only eight members of their team had contracts, their funding was cut due to the pandemic, the rest of the players lived on minimum wage and had no opportunity to train. They turned to crowdfunding until bailed out by the National Lottery.