Masculinity Has A Soft Problem, And It’s Got To Do With Rugby

By Greg Bruce
Photo / Supplied

I was 10 when the All Blacks won their first Rugby World Cup and 34 when they won their next one.

As I watched the years of my adolescence and early adulthood slip away unglorified by victory, what I felt was primarily sadness, but the feelings I saw and heard when reading early internet comments pages or accidentally overhearing talkback were almost exclusively anger.

I don’t remember hearing even a single other person talking about how the All Blacks’ failure to win the World Cup led to the blooming of despair in the already-chaotic spaces of their mental and emotional lives.

Anger is the emotion men are most comfortable expressing, the one that makes us feel least vulnerable and least susceptible to mockery from other men down the boozer.

The expression of emotions other than anger leaves you open to accusations of being soft — a “soft c**k” — which is the worst thing a man could be. Men’s desire to look staunch has a mutually reinforcing relationship with games of staunchness, of which rugby has always been our favourite.

In a brutal test match between the All Blacks and France, in 1986, Buck Shelford was stood on, or kicked, or kneed, in such a way that one of his testicles came free from his scrotum.

Because he carried on playing, this incident passed into legend and made him a paragon of modern New Zealand masculinity. My masculinity has come to stand in direct contrast to Shelford’s. My defining quality has always been softness.

As a kid, I was a noted sook and as an adult I have sometimes struggled with depression and anxiety — adult words for sook.

Writer and author Greg Bruce. Photo / Supplied
Writer and author Greg Bruce. Photo / Supplied

As I watched my body grow into its adult shape, I felt sad at how pathetic it was. I was disappointed it never became strong and that I never developed the firmness of torso that I saw in so many other men in the changing rooms of the various gyms I so infrequently attended.

I have never liked arguing and have never felt comfortable expressing anger towards others. I am afraid of getting into fights and have felt physically sick whenever I’ve seen one.

As a child and adolescent playing rugby, I hated the thought of bleeding or being kicked or stood on at the bottom of a ruck. Tackling, or being tackled, the biggest parts of the game, were not something I ever looked forward to, because they hurt.

Why play a game in which getting hurt is integral to the experience? Getting hurt is not fun and never has been, but to mention that in a rugby context, even as a boy, is enough to get you labelled as soft and to thereby lead to your social ruination.

I remember being told many times as a child that I was too sensitive, that I should stop snivelling and toughen up. I tried first to do all that and then to hide the fact I had been unable to do any of that. I was a soft child and I’ve grown into a soft man.

As someone wrote recently, after the publication of an extract from my new book Rugby Head: "It's a particularly sad look into the thoughts of a beta."

These are just some of the feelings I have wrestled with throughout my life and which I have long had to hide, and which I have now written about in my book Rugby Head because I no longer see the good in hiding them, and because I believe being open about them is the only way to encourage others to be open about them, and because I've reached a stage in my life where it no longer makes any material difference to me if other men think of me as soft.

My hope is that softness will become an increasingly acceptable quality for a man to possess.

The book is not an argument in favour of men becoming sad betas, or at least it’s not only an argument in favour of that, but is an attempt to make it more acceptable to possess a multiplicity of possible manhoods.

It’s possible to be a man who loves rugby and who feels scared at the thought of being hurt, and who cries when bad things happen, like they did at every Rugby World Cup from 1991 to 2007, and who feels anxious about his body and about his ability to talk with people and his ability to form and sustain relationships.

It’s possible, in other words, to be a man who’s something more than a dick in a bar sinking piss and talking shit.

Rugby Head: A Man. A Game. A Life. A Shambles by Greg Bruce (Penguin, $35) is available from all good book retailers.

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