Steve Braunias has challenged all the party political leaders to a game of table tennis. Second lamb to the slaughter: Green Party co-leader James Shaw.

Probably my favourite word in the vocabulary of sports is thrashing. Gave them a thrashing, they got thrashed - it has a pleasing violence to it, more than caning, which sounds kind of playful. A thrashing speaks of something merciless and serious.

Anyway, I took on Greens co-leader James Shaw at table tennis the other day, in the second match in my tournament of games against political party leaders, and gave him a total and utter thrashing, three games to nil, showed him who was master, showed him who was slave - "Taste the whip!", I muttered to myself.

I was in a private frenzy, quoting from that S & M classic, Venus in Furs by Lou Reed. "The belt that does await you..."


There was an element of malice in my game. I really wanted Shaw to suffer. Part of it was personal: long ago I decided I didn't like his face, that it had a smug quality, and was convinced it needed a slapping. But it went beyond Shaw. I wanted to thrash the Green Party itself.

Is there anyone more annoying in New Zealand than a Green voter? I mean the new Green voter. I was all good with the old Green voter, those optimists with their sandals and their beards, awesome gardeners who loaded wheelbarrows with carrots and poured honey into pots, outdoors people with a chicken at their feet and children called Bilbo.

They had it going on. They were practical, communal, inventive.

The new Green voter has gone to university and can't stop talking. They have so many ideas! They pore over graphs, they present fresh data. They have Done Their Reading.

They are the intellectuals of New Zealand politics and you can find them indoors, swotting and plotting, PC gone sane, morally righteous, with their kia oras and their ukuleles.

Shaw is Green Man incarnate and my bias against him was strong when he showed up at the Waitemata Table Tennis stadium in obscure Sunnyvale in West Auckland. It's on the edge of Parrs Park and around the corner from the Hoani Waititi Marae. The stadium looks kind of weatherbeaten, fairly hard-case; it's basically an old tin shack, but it's about to enjoy a $1.5 million renovation, and double the number of tables.

Right now it has five tables. I have played at every single one of them and never won a game until Shaw showed up.

Green Party co-leader James Shaw turned out to have a lot of natural talent for table tennis. Photo / Doug Sherring
Green Party co-leader James Shaw turned out to have a lot of natural talent for table tennis. Photo / Doug Sherring

The retirees, who come from all over Auckland to play on weekday mornings three days a week, are a wicked bunch, including half-blind Barbara, a nice old dear who laughingly sends me sprawling over the table in search of her trick shots.

Shaw arrived looking pretty relaxed, a handsome brown-eyed man, 44, a shade under six feet, a bit thick-set around the waist. He said, "I've never played table tennis before."
I said, "What!"

He repeated the statement, and I said, "What's with that? How come? What about at school - did you play any sports?"

He said, "Underwater hockey."

I said, "What!"

He talked very animatedly about that eccentric game, and I began to like Shaw. He was funny, youthful, he didn't bang on. Also, I realised that I'd mistaken his slappable face for his lookalike, National Radio host Guyon Espiner. Shaw's looks are innocent, blameless.

There was a vulnerability about him and he struck me as a lone wolf. He said he grew up in Aro Valley, Wellington, as an only child who lived with his mum. His dad shot through when she pregnant. They met in London, years later, and got horribly drunk; since then, the occasional email, nothing more than that.

I said, "Where do you live now?"

He said, "Aro Valley. In the same apartment block as my mum."

I said, "What!"

He said, "With my wife! I'm married!"

Steve Braunias plays table tennis with Green Party co-leader and MP James Shaw. Photo / Doug Sherring
Steve Braunias plays table tennis with Green Party co-leader and MP James Shaw. Photo / Doug Sherring

We chatted on comfortable old chairs and sofas in the stadium lounge. You don't get that kind of homeliness at the Auckland Table Tennis Stadium in Epsom. The Sunnyvale lot are very welcoming, very friendly, also very serious about their table tennis. The club reached the semi-finals at the 2016 New Zealand champs, inspired by the dynamic Alfred Dela-Pena, 17, of Te Atatu, the current national junior champion.

"Well," I said to Shaw, "time to play."

We stood up, and I offered him a choice of bats. One of the great appeals of sport is that it allows armed conduct. It imposes terms and conditions to give the encounter a civilising influence, but everyone is aware that all games are a metaphor for ripping off an opponent's head.

An ancient frisson passes between two players in any code - boxing, snooker, chess - as they prepare to battle. I got in Shaw's face and looked him in the eyes. I saw a flicker of aggression. Good.

Just as we headed out to tables, a gentleman appeared wearing a black tracksuit jacket emblazoned with the legend NZ TABLE TENNIS ASSOCIATION.

It was no less an authority than the chairman of the national body, Gary Williams. Word had reached him of my political party leader challenge and he came to Sunnyvale to keep an eye on proceedings. He was a gentle, avuncular soul, but I suspected he was a Green voter because he fussed over Shaw, gave him tips, advice, encouragement.

I thrashed Shaw 21-10 in the first game, and was especially proud of the beauty of my backhand. Williams said to Shaw, "Play to his backhand. It's very weak."

James Shaw during his match with Steve Braunias. Photo / Doug Sherring
James Shaw during his match with Steve Braunias. Photo / Doug Sherring

I said, "What!"

Williams seemed to think I was hard of hearing - you can't blame him - and repeated his libellous remark. I stewed at the insult, and Shaw played to my backhand.

Okay so he picked up a few lucky points, but that just made me angry, and I thrashed him 21-13.

"You've got a lot of natural ability," said Williams. I looked up expectantly but once again he was addressing Shaw. And it was true enough. For a man who'd never picked up a table tennis bat, he played a very credible game; he got the hang of things quickly, figured out the angles, thought his way out of tight corners. Goddamned Greens! They're smart cookies and really it's something to applaud, and respect.

True, his defence was poor. He collapsed like a house of cards. But his attack was devastating.

Let the record show that Shaw has beautiful arms; his reach was awesome, he kept a firm grip on the bat, he had a natural elegance to his play. When he hit a killing shot, it was fast and accurate. I could tell he enjoyed those moments. He radiated the ancient frisson; Shaw had returned to the prehistoric cave, his business shirt was an animal pelt, he took to his enemy with a club.

But his body was a game of two halves. His upper body moved with a sensual grace. From the waist down, it was as though he played in concrete. His legs were stiff as boards, his feet were frozen.

"Move your feet," said Williams.

"Yeah," I mocked, "move your feet!"

I thrashed him 21-9. Three-nil; I'd ripped his head off, and merrily paraded it around on a stick as we retired back to the lounge.

Club member Merle Trenwith had put on a superb spread of sandwiches and cakes. Shaw chowed down, and I thought: not a bad rooster after all.

Table tennis had revealed the man. Decisive, and operates with flair. A quick learner, although weighed down by something. Easy to outmaneuver, but has a ruthless streak. He'll go far.

Series score so far: Braunias retains his advantage and leads 2-0