Nearly an All Black, Forever a Legend: Remembering Murray Ball & Sport in Footrot Flats
"He was a sporting hero, he was a creative hero and then when I met him, he was a hero of a man."
For almost any Kiwi born in the second half of the last century, Footrot Flats was the cultural touchstone that bought the country together.
Focusing on the life and tribulations of Manawatu farmer Wal Footrot and his lovable canine sidekick 'Dog', the cartoon strip was the ultimate parody of New Zealand life – taking the piss out of rural folk and townies equally while never straying too far from the issues of the day.
Dozens of book of collected strips were produced, a cult film was made, and syndications were run internationally. Quite simply, it was the finest cartoon strip New Zealand ever produced.
Last weekend, Murray Ball – Footrots Flats creator and cartoonist – died at his Gisborne farm, aged 78.
Ball, who had been suffering from Alzehemiers for a number of years, first published Footrot Flats in The Evening Post in 1976 and continued on until the late 1990s
No cultural or social commentary on New Zealand is complete without sport, of course. Ball understood this, and incorporated it deftly.
Wal Footrot played his rugby for Raupo RFC as a hooker in the cartoon strip, and hoped of making the All Blacks one day.
In Footrot Flats: The Dog's Tale, Wal teaches his niece Pongo and local kid Rangi how to play rugby, before escaping into a dream of playing for the ABs against a touring British & Irish Lions side.
Ball's cartoon strips would often featured Wal training for, or playing, rugby for the club, while he was also depicted coaching the youth team from time to time.
Cricket was in the Footrot Flats mix too, with Wal shown as a bowler at times and a wicketkeeper at others. Friend Cooch Windgrass often fielded in the slips with Wal, as did Dog. Special sporting editions of the comic strip were made and sold well.
The sporting links in Footrot Flats stem from Ball's own interests, and lineage.
A rugby scene from Footrot Flats: The Dog's Tale. Source: Youtube.
His father Nelson 'Kelly' Ball played five tests and 17 midweek matches on the left wing for the All Blacks between 1931 and 1936, even taking a starring role in New Zealand's 1935/36 tour to the United Kingdom.
The younger Ball was a centre, who played 37 games for Manawatu between 1958 and 1962.
A former New Zealand junior rep, Ball participated in an All Blacks trial in 1961 though he wasn't selected in the eventual national squad.
Ball's friend Norman Maclean told Stuff that the cartoonist kept his fierce passion for rugby his whole life.
"Watching a rugby game with Murray was a serious matter, there was no laughing," Maclean says. "And he would be bellowing and shouting at the screen."
Legendary Kiwi cartoonist Tom Scott, who would later become a close friend of the Footrot Flats creator, said he watched Ball play for Manawatu against the touring British Lions in 1959.
"He was a sporting hero, he was a creative hero and then when I met him, he was a hero of a man," Scott told Stuff.
Despite his love of rugby, Ball took a stand against the controversial 1981 Springboks tour to New Zealand, protesting Prime Minister Rob Muldoon's decision to allowing a South African sports team to visit New Zealand against the backdrop of their racist apartheid regime.
Scott said that Ball was a "fiercely political and fiercely egalitarian" man.
"Those were his two passions – he was passionate about injustice," he says. "It's terribly sad, because he was a brilliant man.
"He was a hero of mine when I was growing up in the Manawatu. It was tremendous to think these great cartoons could be created by someone living just up the road, the didn't need to be things done overseas."