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Lloyd Jones: The Book of Fame

With the possible exception of a couple of baseball ones, there have, surprisingly, been very few good novels with a sports background. Where are the great football (both what almost all the world calls football and what the US and Canada call football), great cricket, great basketball novels? If they exist, I haven’t found them. And now here is a rugby novel. It is not a great novel but it is very good. It is the story of the 1905 All Blacks, the first New Zealand rugby team to tour outside Australasia, primarily in Britain. Despite its excellence and despite the fame of its author, with his successful and almost Man Booker winner Mister Pip, it wasn’t published outside New Zealand till eight years after its original publication.

Jones recounts the journey of the All Blacks to Britain by ship, a long journey around the Cape of Horn. These are ordinary men with ordinary trades but they are certainly nobody’s fools. They marvel at Britain, about which they had heard so much, but are not too overawed to play devastating rugby. Jones runs quickly through the matches, starting with the match in Devon, where the locals turned out, expecting their team to easily handle these farm boys. The All Blacks won 55-4. It was such a surprise that a London paper thought it was in error and showed the result as a defeat for the All Blacks 55-4. Jones runs through the results, including their sole defeat, 3-0 to Wales, till he effectively comes back to the beginning again and goes through the events in more detail.

He does go into some detail of the matches, showing that the success of the All Blacks was due to several reasons – tactical innovation, including the use of wing forwards, scrum formation and an attacking full back, better fitness, the inability of the British teams to adapt to their new tactics, the greater ability of the All Blacks to play as a team – commented on in several newspaper reports – and their ability to focus on space and not just on the man on the opposite side. More particularly, he describes the reactions of the various players to the games, to their travel, to various parts of Britain and to one another. There is criticism, particularly towards the Scots, who seem to misbehave more than most, expecting the New Zealanders to provide the ball, not giving a full cap to their players and not even dining with their opponents, after being beaten. Refereeing is also an issue, as all too often the referees show favouritism towards the home team. This is particularly the case against Wales, one of the few teams to match the All Blacks tactically, when an All Black player scores but the Welsh players drag him back over the line and the referee does not give the try.

Fatigue (they played a total of thirty-five matches) and injuries take their toll but they all seem to be a hearty bunch and willing to adapt tactics and players as needed. Jones’ skill is both showing some of the individuals as people but also the general team spirit. He does that with short, almost staccato comments on their impressions, the reactions and the political and historical background. We get newspaper reports and comments from both players and observers. We get a summaries of the highlights, which are not necessarily the ones we might expect. And, finally, we get the reactions when they return home triumphant. Even if you are not interested in rugby, it is very well done and a fascinating read.

Publishing history

First published 2000 by Penguin