That cold black magic

Documentaries choose to perpetuate myth rather than confront reality

All Blacks skipper Kieran Read performs the haka
All Blacks skipper Kieran Read performs the haka. ***Image: Phil Walter/POOL/Fotosport***

ALL OR NOTHING, the eyewitness sports series from Amazon Prime, has added rugby to its carte. JEFF CONNOR goes all bleary eyed after a long day watching the result.

Most of these fly-on-the-wall documentaries (All or Nothing is the generic title) concentrate on teams from America’s National Football League (NFL). It’s a simple format: producers choose a team and event, pay for access and then set camera crews loose on unsuspecting players and staff. It worked particularly well with the Arizona Cardinals of the NFL in 2016 thanks to on-field and off-field drama, serious injury, witty and articulate players and, crucially, a charismatic head coach. If I say that Warner Bros., Amazon and a Kiwi production team expected something similar from the All Blacks and their head coach, Steve Hansen, you can see where this is going.

It’s an odd mix this: slick but lacking in real substance and carefully constructed to place AB team and staff in the best possible light: so no punch-ups or dressing room disagreements, no boozy celebrations, no f-words by players (Hansen fulfills that function for them) and all supported by bonny WAGS and adorable kids. The result is as authentic as the old telly commercial for the Oxo Family.

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In one-to-one interviews the ABs do come over as likeable family men but there’s something of the Stepford Wives about them, their unquestioning obedience, willingness to have daily life arranged for them and the fear of every member of the walk-on 15 that there’s an army of clones waiting in the wings for injury or lack of form.

The producers (Pango Productions of Auckland) must have given themselves a tough assignment. A team that can win a championship with games to spare (and beat the Springboks 57-0 on the way) isn’t going to keep bums on seats and, in any case, if you’re so desperate to catch the action you can always download it on YouTube for free.

Unlike your average NFL player who will go into full Oscar mode at the first sight of a camera the ABs are not naturals on-screen so there’s a constant need to dramatize the trivial, a daytime soap in which ham actors have to squeeze lots out of very little. The bogus grunts and groans compete with the obligatory slow-mos to warn us that injury, foul play or a try is due. The rest is mood music, TV commentary and radio talk-ins from anonymous callers opinionating like guests on the George Galloway show. One Haka is enough for many, but there’s an overdose here, so repetitive it’s like watching Groundhog Day for the 100th time.

When full-back Ben Smith takes over as captain (Kieran Read had crooked a thumb) the narrator describes it in the somber tones of a Dimbleby covering the abdication and Smith’s concussion check later is drawn out like an episode of Supervet: will he recover? Won’t he recover? Is his career over? Will he have to be put down? Unlike Supervet, however, whatever was wrong with Smith is kept off camera and we have to wait until Chapter 2 to get the detail. No surprise then, when it turns out it wasn’t concussion at all.

Some of the historical background is either incorrect, or simply ignored. When Kiwi Warren Gatland is filmed arriving home to coach the Lions against the ABs it is ‘sacrilege’ according to our narrator, who fails to mention Steve Hansen coaching Wales (against the ABs) in the 2003 Rugby World Cup.  Archive footage of Gavin Hastings’ side celebrating the win at Wellington in 1993 is tied with a voiceover telling us that the Lions ‘only came out on top once’. Either they didn’t bother with the research or couldn’t find footage of the ’71 tour.  AB ‘Scrum Doctor’ Mike Cron is introduced as the ‘man who wrote the book on the modern day scrum’. I might be mistaken, but I always thought Jim Telfer wrote that one?

If it was hoped, as I’m sure it was, that four hours of the All Blacks would sell the documentary to American audiences, good luck. The revelation from the team’s ageing bus driver that ‘Reado (Read) can’t have the back seat because he’s skipper. I don’t know why but that’s the way it is so that’s the way it is’ won’t cut much ice in Arizona or Los Angeles or even Edinburgh. There are too many page fillers like this and most of that is for hardcore AB fans only: no in-depth study of attack lines, defensive drills, line-outs or scrums, no tactical discussion and no half-time team talks (a big plus in six best-selling Lions DVDs). I understand Hansen’s need for secrecy, but it’s rather spurious to tout this film as an ‘in-depth look’ at the All Blacks because it isn’t.

Whitewashing the All Blacks

If there is a hint of anything vaguely controversial – Sonny Bill Williams (sent off in the second Lions test), Jerome Kaino (accused of foul play) – AB spin doctors move in to muddy the waters, as they did in 2005 after Tana Umaga’s criminal assault of Lions captain Brian O’Dricoll. The strategy then was to cry sour grapes and insist that Umaga never went out to injure the opposition to which I always offer the same response: Pol Pot was a farmer before he took up genocide.

The problems in trying to present Williams and Kaino as Misters Clean in 2017 is that, unlike 2005, there are dozens of cameras to catch the villains in the act. The film maker has to be more devious this time so a camera crew heads out to tag Williams and Kaino for a day, Kaino the loving dad at a junior match and Williams, armed with selfies of his daughter, playing with street kids in Argentina. Unfortunately for them, the later footage of Kaino trying to take Alun Wyn Jones’ head off and being sin-binned for his pains rather proved my original point.

There are some AB regulars, too: opposing teams are ‘jealous of our successes’ and ‘someone has been spying on us’. These make a change from losing AB teams accusing someone of poisoning them and winning French teams being accused of getting juiced up, but a good 10 minutes is wasted this time round, 10 minutes that could have been spent on more memorable bits like (just a suggestion) interviews with famous members of the opposition? Was it arrogance, or ignorance, for a documentary maker to follow games in which the All Blacks faced the Lions, Wallabies, Springboks and the Pumas, without mentioning a single opposing player by name?

Hansen does a lot of talking, on and off the park, where he can relish his role of serial whinger, particularly in the wake of the series draw with the Lions: ‘It feels like a loss to us and we’re not happy,’ he grumbles. ‘The Lions will go home happy. They can feel like they feel, we feel like we’ve lost because we expect to win.’

Chill out, Steve, it’s only a bloody game.

Not quite as good as it gets

About the same time as the AB series came out the Leeds-based film studio The City Talking released another rugby (league) film through Prime Video Direct, AKA the Amazon Answer to YouTube.

As Good as it Gets (no relation to the Jack Nicholson comedy) purports to be the story of the ‘fall and rise’ of the Leeds Rhinos of Super League, from financial disasters to a 2015 treble.

League documentaries are rare so I had high hopes for this. I was disappointed. There was an excellent BBC documentary, the Rugby Codebreakers, about the Welsh union players who went north and some might remember Rugby League vs Union – The Game That Got Away, which happily never made the mistake of casting League follower as plebs and union fans as snobs. This was made in the late ‘60s so an update was long overdue. Unfortunately for league fans, the makers of As Good as it Gets, stuck with the cloth caps and the old re-runs from This Sporting Life and Kes.

I cringed at the first brass bands and the opening montage of striking miners, Coronation Street housing, black and white tellies and half-eaten fish and chip papers. I was hoping to hear the details of a club’s phoenix-like rise from the ashes but there is little in the way of background there.

The Leeds current CEO and chairman are introduced as the leaders of the rescue act, the club’s ‘last hopes’, but when I saw the opening credits listing them as ‘executive producers’ I began to suspect that there may be a lack of objectivity here. And so it proves.

The CEO’s wife (former RFL president Kath Hetherington) goes on camera to blame Leeds’s financial woes on the dominance of Wigan (a popular RL whinge back then) and even manages to keep a straight face while arguing: ‘This was why people began to lose interest in the sport. They (Wigan) were full time when everyone else was part time.’

This is nonsense. Among the Leeds luminaries at the time of the ‘crisis’ was Kiwi legend Dean Bell (who admittedly soon left to join Wigan), Kangaroo great Mark McGaw and Kelso’s own Alan Tait, a man quite happy to be described as a full-time, paid professional. The £300k Leeds spent on dual code star Iestyn Harris isn’t, wisely perhaps, mentioned at all, nor is his move to Cardiff and Wales.

Like the ABs documentary, there is no attempt to appeal to anyone outside a small fan base. There’s a crude attempt to fool us into believing that Rhinos’ successes owed everything to the Leeds academy: local boys make good and all that. Kevin Sinfield, their former captain and undoubted sporty superstar, is from Oldham, as are influential former players Barry McDermott and Harris. Adrian Morley, one of the stars of the Challenge Cup final at Murrayfield in 2000 and a man who would make most lists of Top English Players of All Time, is from Salford. None of these are acknowledged, probably because none fitted the film makers’ rural agenda.

Finally, there’s one hilarious interview when perennial league bad boy Zak Hardaker (currently serving an 18-month ban before joining, believe it or not, Wigan) is given as much time and as many effs and blinds as he needs to discuss his problems with booze and coke. This is alarmingly frank stuff and not for family-listening though well worth waiting for when someone suggests that poor Zak might have stayed out of trouble had he been local to Leeds. Hardaker is from Pontefract, 28 miles down the M62.

One Knight, forty-five Lions: With Sir Clive Woodward in New Zealand … chapter one



About Jeff Connor 12 Articles
JEFF CONNOR was born in Manchester, went to school at Bury and lives in Lytham. He has worked for a number of national newspapers including the Daily Express, Daily Star, Scottish Sun, Scotland on Sunday and Scottish Mail on Sunday. He is the author of 12 books, including: Wide Eyed and Legless, the classic account of the 1987 Tour de France; The Lost Babes, the moving story of the Munich air disaster; The Philosophy of Risk, a biography of the tragic mountaineer Dougal Haston; Pointless, a season with Britain’s worst football team; Up and Under, an inside account of the 2001 Lions tour to Australia; and Giants of Scottish Rugby, which contains exclusive interviews with 40 of the nation’s greatest players. He recently published his first novel: Looking for Lulu.


  1. Got to say I agree. Plain vanilla treatment, bland and lacking any insight. Went in thinking I might get something interesting and came away having moved back to watching more compelling box set fodder like Beach Grove garden.

  2. I guess if you have an agenda against the All Blacks you aren’t going to like the documentary. The article says a lot more about Mr Connor than anything else.

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