Rugby is a game of colonies, transported from the playing fields of England’s private schools around the British Empire. But in 1995 there was a moment of brilliance that made rugby a world sport and changed the game forever; and it was sparked by a Tongan 20-year-old Jonah Lomu.
“We now know that as a result of what Jonah did, the world became interested in rugby. Jonah becomes this global brand. Jonah becomes the ambassador of Sport New Zealand. And rugby itself across the world. Jonah’s got a Jonah burger at McDonald’s. Jonah is a professional sport in New Zealand. Jonah is the reason why the world becomes interested – not just in rugby – the world becomes interested in the All Blacks,” says Wilcox.
It was the All Blacks vs. England semifinal of the 1995 Rugby World Cup. The All Blacks had been dominating the tournament, according to commentator Keith Quinn this game was remembered for “the most brilliant quartet of tries you’d ever wish to see,”. Jonah Lomu scored the tries. They secured New Zealand’s place in the final.
So this week’s object, chosen in part to recognise the importance of Pacific culture in our national story, is not a tapa cloth or one of the other 15,000 typically traditional items in Te Papa’s collection.
It’s the 1997 PlayStation video game Jonah Lomu Rugby.
“When these games first came out it was interesting that the rugby bosses chose a Pacific Islander and a Tongan to represent the game,” says Sean Mallon, Senior Curator Pacific Culture at Te Papa.
“This was part of the marketing of Jonah Lomu within the marketing of the international game. So you have this Tongan man from New Zealand becoming the face of international professional rugby. And that’s part of a bigger story about how Pacific people became the face and the most marketable commodity in the professionalisation of rugby.”
“For a long time and even today New Zealanders have had an ambivalent relationship with Pacific peoples, wanting them in some instances and not wanting them in others…
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“And to some extent that’s still true today – but rugby, being supposedly a place for all New Zealanders to come together, elevated a Pacific Islander to the top and rightly deserved. But you know, even seeing Lomu on the cover of a CD like this sort of masks a lot of ambivalence in rugby around Pacific players and their place.”
It’s game about a game, but a game – rugby – that is intrinsically bound up in our national character.