Ryan Bodman with Rosa and Archie, at the Knights v. Warriors semi-final at Mt Smart this year. (Photo: Dale Bradbury)

It’s tempting to focus on the bookends of rugby league history in Aotearoa. Because the first time the Kiwi rugby league team took to the field against the Kangaroos in 1908, they claimed bragging rights with an 11-10 win. Then in their latest match up, early last month, it was a little more decisive. New Zealand 30 – Australia 0.

In the 115 years between those two New Zealand victories, it wasn’t quite as satisfying for us. Just 34 Kiwi wins from the 143 test matches in that period.

But there’s way more to New Zealand’s rugby league history than those ultra-tough games against the Aussie test teams.

And now, thanks to the research from Ryan Bodman, much of that history is spelled out in a hefty hardback from Bridget Williams Books. It’s called Rugby League in New Zealand And here’s Dale Husband talking with Ryan about the project.


Kia ora, Ryan. Let’s start our kōrero with some of your family background.

No problem. I grew up in Mt Maunganui. Mum and Dad are Garth and Julia Bodman. Both Pākehā. Dad worked at the local Postbank and my mother was mostly a stay-at-home mum who did all sorts of odd jobs to support the household. Mum’s family are working-class Londoners who came here in 1971. Dad’s family were from Ōpōtiki. He had a Labour Methodist background that seeped into us three boys.

I moved up to Auckland to go to university in 2003. A few years later, I met my wife, Holly, and we’re now raising a young family in Onehunga, here in Auckland.

Tēnā koe. Did you cross paths much with Māori whānau in your early years?

Contact with Māori was part of growing up in Tauranga. There’s a big Māori population there, so there was a lot of contact through school and the wider community. I remember ladies from the local community coming into school and teaching us basic te reo in the early 1990s. And the contested history of the region was part of our education — at least it was at Omanu Primary and Mt Maunganui College.

Sadly, I embraced the racism that was common down there at the time, and it wasn’t until I was 16 or 17 that I began the work of challenging the many tired prejudices that I’d absorbed and accepted.

A part of the reason that I moved to Auckland was to get away from what I felt were elements of that Pākehā culture that I’d grown up in. On the one hand, there was a respect for the working man, but there was also a kind of unstated cultural supremacy.

It’s complicated, and it’s an ongoing journey for me. And having our kids go through bilingual daycare and being in bilingual units has been a constant part of our lives for the last decade or so.

Another influence has been learning some in-depth, 19th-century New Zealand history while I was working as a contractor with the Waitangi Tribunal. In that work, it was clear that Māori had constantly been dealt a crappy hand in the history of this country. And that led me to new conclusions about why things are the way they are. But I’ve also seen that there’s been a striving across many generations, for what Māori call “tika” and what Pākehā call “right” and “fairness”.

Rugby league is a game “built on deep foundations of working-class life in New Zealand”. Auckland’s first rugby league club was Ōtāhuhu Rovers, established in 1911. The club’s 1915 second grade team is pictured here in front of a row of supporters. (Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, Footprints 03711)

What is it about history that appeals to you?

I was interested in history early on. I studied it right through high school. I think it partly came from having storytellers around me as a young person. My granddad was a working-class Londoner, and so is my grandma — and they communicated through stories. Their storytelling was massive. Hanging out with them, and with my mum, introduced me to a love of storytelling. Good history is just telling stories about the past which, with a little curation, can provide insights about the present.

Early on, I was exposed to stories about, say, the Monmouth Redoubt — that’s the British military position above where Tauranga is now. It’s where the civilians were stationed during the assault on Pukehinahina/Gate Pā. And, when I went to these places, I carried these stories with me. I’ve always done that. That just appeals to me. I like to immerse myself in stories and then take them to the spots where they occurred, to see what they can reveal to me about the place.

During my teenage years and into my 20s, I got that “change the world” buzz — and history didn’t seem very relevant. So, I turned to activism and international development studies at university. But I didn’t have much success with that.

Ultimately, I was inspired by people like Howard Zinn, who wrote A People’s History of the United States. That book showed the power of grassroots movements of ordinary people in promoting change within their local context. And that made me think that perhaps, by uncovering stories from New Zealand’s past, I might be able to contribute positively.

So I tried to uncover some of those stories and make sense of them. And that attracted me to history because that allows you to retell the stories which define your experience.

A major chapter in the New Zealand story is the Treaty of Waitangi. What would you say of its role in modern-day and future Aotearoa?

The Treaty is massively important because it set a benchmark of Māori expectation in the process of colonisation. It said: “Okay, you’re here. Now, let’s make this work in a way which will maintain what we are, but also allow you to be here, and be what you are.”

Some modern narratives about the document concern me. Knowingly or unknowingly, they can legitimise the state or the Crown as the natural representative of all Pākehā. This ignores the major divisions that have always existed throughout Pākehā society, and the reality that, while colonisation was a means to make money and build status for some, for many others it was a journey of survival.

But the document itself, and the ideas behind it and the history it represents — that needs to be fulfilled in some meaningful way. The momentum is too significant now to get off track. Because if you don’t have justice in society, there can’t be peace. There’s that old saying: “If justice is the seed, then peace will be the flower.”

Spectators at a Waitangi Shield match at Carlaw Park in 1934. (Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, New Zealand Herald 13 September 1934)

In your master’s degree, you were examining the role of unionism in New Zealand’s checkered industrial history.

I was born in December 1984, just a few months after the Fourth Labour Government was voted in. That was the start of this big move towards globalising and entering the global economy — and that meant taking down a lot of the protections which had previously shaped the economy and the society that existed then.

I could see that there was this major shift away from a collectivist ethos towards an individual ethos — and that the trade unions, which had been one of the most potent expressions of a collective ethos, had to struggle and were often hounded out of existence early on.

I was interested in how the unions had been transformed, from something which many people saw as an important part of the welfare structures of society, towards something prompting a sort of hysteria where the unions became a whipping boy for everything that was wrong — where they were somehow to blame for everything, including inflation and unemployment.

That happened around the world, including the UK and US, for example — and the unions were on the back foot. Here, across the 1980s and early 1990s, we saw them lose their industrial muscle and become sort of professional bargaining agents that maintain the collective focus on the national interest, narrowly defined around economic growth. I wanted to explore that. It really fascinated me.

My interest in rugby league flowed out of that, because league also was kind of counter-cultural and working-class, which was this element in society that the unions rested on heavily. And league, like the unions, had been on the back foot for 30 years because of the changes that had taken place in the economy, and the growing influence of a corporate culture.

The history of rugby league in New Zealand spoke clearly to aspects of working-class life and heritage in New Zealand, and it also offered a unique take on the changes that have reshaped our society across the past few decades.

Here was a game built on deep foundations of working-class life in New Zealand, and suddenly it emerged as a powerful vehicle for the sale of beer and paid-TV subscriptions, and it was quickly overrun by the money men.

It’s a fascinating history — and naturally you’ve gone on to explore that in your new book Rugby League in New Zealand: A People’s History. Was your family into that game? Were you?

Oh yeah. We watched the game as kids. But we weren’t rugby league people, and the sport didn’t have a local presence where I grew up. We were just general sports fans who were excited by the Winfield Cup when that came on the TV in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. And we were quite fanatical about the Warriors when they were launched in 1995.

What were the things that surprised or fascinated you when you first dipped into the history of the game?

There were quite a number of things that kept my interest in the topic as I worked on it over several years.

The corporatisation of the game was amazing to retrace. It was the first time that I’d studied a moment of history in which I had my own memories of what I was exploring. This exciting spectacle for us kids turned out to be a significant period in the story of New Zealand sport, where a game with a local character and heritage was being transformed into a consumer product.

As a boy, I was an enthusiastic consumer of the Warriors brand, so it was quite sobering to see the impacts that change had on the grassroots game.

The important role that women have played in rugby league was another part of the sport’s history and heritage that fascinated me. When I interviewed people for the book, the significant role that women had played in club life was a theme that came up again and again. And, when I started working through old newspapers and records, I saw that this dated back to the game’s early days in New Zealand, with women establishing a formal place in the social life of rugby league all the way back in the 1930s.

And, finally, the dynamics evident in the relationship between the rugby codes in the early 20th century was fascinating to me. The issue that split rugby in two was player payments, and so the stories about rugby league often take on wider significance in the context of broader economic debates.

Somehow, rugby still retains something akin to a religious status in our country, whereas rugby league surfaced, initially, as an alternative for working-class men. Right from the get-go, the Pākehā establishment has looked down its nose at those who’ve had the audacity to play league.

But then the Kīngitanga stepped in, nearly 100 years ago, and said: “This is the game for us.” By no means do I want to be disrespectful to the Māori rugby community who are also proud of their whakapapa. But rugby league has appealed to the Huntly miners, and to the Kīngitanga. And that connection has been significant across the generations. There’s been this relationship between working-class people, union ideals, and a Māori appetite for the code.

Yeah, absolutely. Once I got over that initial interest in the trade union connection, that was another development that I noticed and was blown away by. I was amazed by the way the game flourished in working-class areas — especially around Huntly and Ngāruawāhia. I think that was partly because there were so many foreign miners there, but also because the code became an important marker of social and cultural life for many Kīngitanga Māori in that area.

Rugby league flourished in working-class areas, especially around Huntly and Ngāruawahia. It was an important marker of social and cultural life for many Kīngitanga Māori in that area. Pictured: Tūrangawaewae supporters revel in their victory over Taniwharau in the Waikato Rugby League grand final at Davies Park on August 14, 2021. (Photo: Enzo Giordani)

There’s also been the sad reality of New Zealand rugby teams touring South Africa without Māori players because they were unwelcome. Perhaps that’s had an impact.

A big impact, I believe. Very early on, not just for the Kīngitanga, but for Māori more generally, rugby league offered a place where they could avoid some of those prejudices. That policy of excluding Māori from tours to South Africa began in the 1920s, and by the 1930s, there was a big switch over from rugby union to rugby league among Māori footballers in some parts of the motu.

Those people were responding to the slight extended to them by the New Zealand Rugby Union, by shifting their loyalty to another code — one which was more democratic, and which didn’t view difference as a threat in the same way as those in the Pākehā establishment did.

Rugby league is on the rise, thanks to the performances of the Kiwis and the Warriors. But despite their successes, the code is still mostly seen as the poor cousin of rugby union. Do you think that will ever change? Or is union too ingrained as the dominant winter code in this country?

I reckon everything could change if the Warriors were to win the NRL premiership. The whole landscape would be completely altered because here’s a team, week in and week out, playing one of the rugby codes against Australian teams. And, if they can win that NRL competition, they’d have massive cultural power. Already, “Up the Wahs!” has almost managed to overcome the corporate takeover of rugby league and partially return it to the people.

That’s what’s been most beautiful to me. Seeing the homemade signs and the grassroots festivities. That wasn’t coming from the marketers and the advertising execs. It was coming from rugby league fans. Rugby league is still a major force.

New Zealand performs the haka during the women’s Rugby League World Cup final between Australia and New Zealand, Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane, Australia, 2 December 2017. (Photo: Tertius Pickard / www.photosport.nz)

Ryan, you’ve delved into areas of the codes that few if any have touched on. I wonder what reactions there’ve been to the kaupapa you’ve raised in the book?

Many tears. Readers have told me about how it’s helped them understand their granddad, or other members of their families. Or how it’s validated an experience they’ve had themselves. I’m not a “leaguie” myself, but I see myself as coming from the stock of ordinary people. And it’s important to have our experiences validated.

So, as a historian, that’s what I’m trying to do — explore how power operates in society, and tell those stories and experiences that’ve always been there, but maybe haven’t received the attention that they deserve.

Tēnā koe. Is this history a part of your academic work? Like a master’s degree or doctorate?

I did an MA in history at the University of Auckland, but when I sent some of my writing to my mum and dad, they were like: “This is bullshit. We can’t understand this.”

I wanted to write in a way that was academically credible but still accessible to people outside of the academic space. So, I abandoned the idea of doing a PhD on rugby league in New Zealand, and just wrote it in my spare time.

So, yeah, I surprised myself and I did that. And now I’m looking at starting a PhD next year, looking at youth subcultures in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. Punk, reggae, disco, and all these scenes that speak to the breakdown and rise of certain class and racial and social identities. I think that might be my next step if I can get some funding to support that study.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

© E-Tangata, 2023

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