Steve Braunias gave newly elected National Party leader Simon Bridges the ultimate test of character: a game of table tennis.
Barely one month into the job, newly elected National Party leader Simon Bridges suffered his first crushing defeat on Monday morning. He got owned. He got taken to the cleaners. He got beat in a game of table-tennis at my place in Te Atatu and what made it cruel and wounding is that it was on his home turf. Bridges grew up in the Baptist Church house just around the corner from my two-storey mansion — bedrooms and various annexes upstairs, table-tennis stadium downstairs.
I was mucking around by the herbaceous borders when the driver of his Crown car swept around the curve of my driveway. I knew Bridges was hyped for the game because he texted at 5:51am to confirm. He had an agony of waiting as he went through his usual Monday morning schedule — appearances on Morning Report, The AM Show, and children's programme Breakfast. He leaped out of the BMW, ready to get down to business.
I said, "How are you feeling?"
He said, "Exhilarated!"
He meant the game but he also meant the thrill of returning to his old neighbourhood. Bridges, 41, pointed out the house where a friend had all the best Star Wars toys, the house where a friend used to test the theory that a cat always lands on its feet by chucking it off the roof, the house where a third friend killed himself after an unhappy love affair ... I first met Bridges about eight years ago and the thing I've always liked about him is his talk, the quantity and quality of it. He talks a lot. It all comes pouring out, he doesn't edit, there's a fantastic and contagious enthusiasm about the guy. As a kid, he was evangelical for Jesus. He took the Kool-Aid. He's remained Christian, in a tempered, modest kind of way; in practise, his God is politics.
I believe in the God of war. I issued the table-tennis challenge to Bridges when he popped by the Herald offices a few weeks ago. He agreed without a second's hesitation. "My office can sort the details," he said. But his office were useless, and didn't reply to my emails. Bridges himself drove the match: "Have my guys and girls not organised this??!?", he texted.
We set a time. I'd actually been waiting months to play the leader of the National Party — last year, I nagged and cajoled former leader Bill English, then in his capacity as interim Prime Minister, to meet me for a game as part of my election campaign series when I challenged very party leader to show some balls. Jacinda Ardern said yes to a game, English wouldn't even respond. Many political commentators have since identified his refusal to play as a crucial factor in his election loss. The optics were bad. He looked chicken. Those special votes could have gone National's way ...
History! It's all in the past. Here was Bridges, the new, energetic, immensely likeable National Party leader, admiring my creative lawn-mowing and continuing to talk a mile a minute as I gave him a guided tour of the manor and its grounds. Eventually we arrived at the theatre of dreams. The house of pain. The games room, which also doubles as my office — in the very same room that I was about to hand Bridges his ass, I would sit down and write exactly how it was that I handed Bridges his ass.
There are two things that need to be noted before I begin the match report. The first is that I beat him, triumphed, won. The second is that table tennis is above all things a test of character, and Bridges revealed himself as a very, very interesting guy, someone with depth and purpose. He showed tenacity. He showed class. He didn't show anything resembling skill, but he showed strength. I wish to make a call: the guy who I beat at table-tennis on Monday morning is going to be the next Prime Minister.
Bridges lost the first game 21-15, and won the second game 21-18. It took resilience to stage that comeback. Frankly he was awful in the first game, lobbing harmless returns way beyond the table, time and time again. He tried to serve backhand; that wasn't smart. He tried to apply spin; another terrible idea. If his attack was lacking, his defence was awol. I noticed that he'd put on a bit of weight since we last met so I played killer shots low and hard at the weakest point of his body — his stomach. Come to think of it, I did the same thing in my rematch late last year with Jacinda Ardern. How was I to know she was pregnant?
Bridges wasn't with child. He was the child. He played like a klutz and a ninny and a clown, swiping the bat like a fly swat, and that way lies injury. Sure enough, he dropped the bat at a crucial moment and hit the edge of the table with his right hand. If it had happened to me, my foul swearing would have blackened every room of the mansion. As a good Christian, Bridges kept his pain to himself, and played on with a throbbing paw. It only strengthened his resolve.
He is not what you might call a natural sportsman. We talked while we played — well, Bridges talked — and he said he became head boy at nearby Rutherford College because he excelled at nerdy things like debating; he didn't exactly stride the rugby or cricket fields like a colossus. Worse, his older brother Tim destroyed his confidence when he was about five. They were playing tennis. Tim told Simon he was useless. And he used a word that plunged like a dagger through his heart: "You're unco-ordinated."
From that moment on, he said, the accusation haunted his every attempt at sporting competence.
It still does. During our three games he had all the co-ordination of a badly assembled robot. It was as though his arms and eyes were in different rooms. But he had very good hands. His hands had a mind of their own; his hands moved to their own music. He said he played drums in the school band. "I've got rhythm!", he shouted. It was true. His serves were superb. Anything more than five shots in a rally and he was all at sea; less than that, when things were at close range, he found the rhythm, kept the beat. I played vicious table-tennis — at the gut, hitting with maximum force. Bridges played beautiful table-tennis — gorgeous angles, imaginative strokes. Somewhere within him, buried beneath right-wing rhetoric and the need to conform, is an artiste.
Game three got under way. He took an early lead. He assumed command. I viewed him with respect and loathing. He was in high spirits, and laughed loudly. Bridges has a mocking quality to him. I have always warmed to that side of his character but not now, in my own home, with defeat creeping up the walls.
I assessed the situation. Here we were, the two SB's, both men of Te Atatu, at a turning point in the game. I suddenly realised that my only way out was to break his concentration. That was easy: get him talking.
It was my serve. I held the ball at my side, and said, "You know, I've been meaning to ask you. Jonathan Coleman. Was he, as he certainly appeared to my way of thinking, a total asshole?"
"No," he said, with obvious insincerity.
I said, "You said that with obvious insincerity."
He said, "I think you're being unfair."
I said, "To you, or Coleman?"
"Well," he said, "all political careers end in failure. Apart from John Key. He left on his own terms."
I said, "Let me posit something. A year on since Key left, when you look back on his time as PM, there's nothing there. There's no resonance. What I'm saying is that I think he was a bum, a total failure."
He said, "I think it's too early to tell."
"Gee," I said, with a mocking laugh, "you're really going in to bat for him. Anyway! My serve."
His concentration had gone. I'd broken him. I raced into the lead, and held it; I opened up a margin of about six points, and he managed to close it as he regained his composure and got back into the rhythm of his game, but it was too late and I won 21-18.
Earlier, when we talked — that is, he talked — about his first few weeks as party leader, he said, "I'm just intent on giving the public a smell of me."
I said, "A what?"
He said, "A smell. You know, am I the sort of guy they could have a beer with."
He'd be an excellent guy to have a beer with. He's fun, he's chatty, he's energetic, he's a good sport. An essence of a person is illuminated when they play table-tennis; with Bridges, for all his flailing and self-harming, it's the sense that he has the right stuff.
He just has to work on processing his brother's taunt. I suspect it's a lot deeper than he thinks. A moment's loss of co-ordination can make a man say something he will have cause to regret.