Brutal by Ron Palenski
Ron Palenski is a truly prolific author and commentator of all things sport - particularly rugby. One may feel there is a plethora of books out there at present about the game, from individual players, to coaches, to a general body of work around the game itself. They can have a tendency to be ‘samey’ in their approach and less and less rewarding as a reader.
We are fortunate to have quality sports writing in this country, we are blessed with writers who conceptualise the sport in the context of the environment in which it is played. Never has that been truer than with the ongoing, long fought battle between two rugby greats - New Zealand and South Africa. A battle that has ticked over 100 years in 2021 and seen much in terms of comradeship, wars, deeply divided political and social experiences and an enduring spirit of quality play on the field.
Brutal is the story of this enduring competition with the subtitle of The 100-year fight for world rugby supremacy. One can be certain some other countries may not be overly ecstatic with that by-line, but it certainly works in favour of our sporting pastime. Certainly looking at the past 3 Rugby World Cups would suggest that Polenski is bang on the money.
Polenski is a remarkable writer of the genre. He intertwines the sensitivities that come with a hundred years of political and social change in both countries with the stand outs of some of the finest players and physical battles the sporting world has seen. It is truly one of the great rivalries of the modern sporting era.
In 1921 the Springboks - as they were known even then - came to New Zealand marking the first time the two countries would play each other. The first of which was at Dunedin on August 13th. The current tally is 99.
There has not been plain sailing between the two countries along the way. In 1928, 1949 and 1960 New Zealand acquiesced to the South African demands to not include Māori in touring sides. A fact that Rugby New Zealand apologised for in 2010 with Mike Eagle remarking that it was ‘a period in which the respect of New Zealand Māori rugby was not upheld and that is deeply regretted’.
Polenski takes the reader through all through the series from then to now and, masterfully, takes an episode or personality from each of the series and uses anecdotal evidence to really capture the key elements of that tour.
Few people could take this story of 100 years of rugby including statistics and information about each tour and maintain interest for a broad range of readers. Polenski truly captures the spirit and the energy of the dynamic relationship.
Reviewer: Chris Reed