World cup shows rugby is our ‘surrogate religion’

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Associate Professor Peter Lineham

A Massey University religious historian says the hype and intensity surrounding the Rugby World Cup proves the game is still a surrogate religion in New Zealand.

Professor Peter Lineham has researched and written extensively on the link between sport and religion, arguing that “the symbolic place of sport in New Zealand society is not dissimilar to that occupied by religion in the past.”

Now, he says, there is a “new evolution in this fixation on rugby”, beyond the classic refrain that Kiwi culture revolves around rugby, racing and beer.

“The opening ceremony [of Rugby World Cup] was an
extraordinary example,” he says. “You could see this clearly from each of the steps – from the calling and the karanga, and the sharks’ heads coming together. Jonah Lomu became the symbol of the beauty and glory of the ultimate dream to be a rugby hero. He was the saviour figure, and the little boy was the searcher for salvation.”

He says that while rugby cannot live up to the current hype in the long term, there are advantages for fans and non-fans alike in being swept up in the cult of the cup and the goals and identity it affirms.

Note the symbolism in the name of, for example, The Cloud, for rugby’s party central on Auckland’s waterfront,” says Dr Lineham. His own office at Massey’s Albany campus overlooks North Harbour Stadium, one of the key cup venues, or “places of worship”, he says.

“These things suggest a kind of elevation of spirit. If you talk to people, the excitement is there even in those who have zero interest in rugby but are caught up in the ‘wow’ factor and the glow.”

Much has been said about the potential link between the result of the cup final, and that of our general elections a month later. “The way that rugby has changed is that it’s increasingly linked with nation building,” says Dr Lineham. “The dream and ambition of a sporting triumph, especially on our own shores, is an extraordinary way to create a national religion.”

This “quasi-religious” status of rugby, manifested in the contagious nationwide cup mania, has its roots in the days when men lived for the weekend rugby match, he says. “For many, it gave their lives meaning and significance. What becomes religious about this is when rugby starts carrying a value that it can’t possibly fulfil and is not designed to provide for. So it becomes a quasi-religion, a substitute for religion.”

Core values that have since been encoded in rugby and upheld with religious zeal today date back to our colonial past. “A successful colonial society was built by hard-working, sweating heroes,” Professor Lineham says. “These are ordinary men who are able to change the world extraordinarily. This notion of the simple saviour, and the heroism of the simple bloke was part of New Zealand’s early identity and was a striking feature of rugby.”

When the New Zealand team first toured England in 1905, our national identity was at stake too.
“At the time, the Prime Minister Richard Seddon totally adopted the All Blacks’ success as symbolic of the success of the state. He would interrupt parliamentary proceedings to announce rugby results.”

Rugby’s promise of transformation for the nation remains an expression of its overlap with organised religion. “In an age when religion doesn’t work too well, this [Rugby World Cup] works fantastically well and in some ways the commercialisation just makes sure the message gets out to everybody,” says Dr Lineham.

However, rugby is but a substitute for a religion. “In practice nobody pretends the All Blacks are gods and we tend to abandon them fairly quickly if they lose. They don’t generate genuine moral, ethical principles. Their status is out of all proportion with reality.”

As in any religion, surrogate or bona fide, All Black fans – aka ‘believers’ – will accordingly be praying for a victory, he says.

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