Thursday, August 11, 2022

Test rugby is much more than a game

The All Blacks’ multibillion-dollar brand is on the line, and with it the nation’s fortunes.
Alan Emerson says Ireland totally deserved to win, having outplayed the All Blacks. File photo

Like many of you, I suffered the recent All Blacks-Irish tests. To put the record straight, Ireland totally deserved to win.  They played better rugby, hung onto the ball, made fewer mistakes and took their opportunities.

We started badly, couldn’t win our lineouts and lacked leadership, and we have a tired, old team that has lost direction and is badly coached, in my view. 

If massive changes aren’t made we’ll be lucky to end up in the top eight in next year’s Rugby World Cup. That we have lost four of the past five tests is testament to that.

Going on social media after the last two test failures, I was offended by some of the posts telling me it was only a game.  It is much more than that.

NZ Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson describing the performance as unacceptable is an understatement and begs the question as to what he and the NZRFU board are going to do about it.

When current board chair Stewart Mitchell was elected he was asked what he had to offer.  His reply, arrogant as it was in my view, was that he was from Canterbury and knew how to win.  As he has obviously lost that ability with the All Blacks, one could respectfully ask if he is intending to step down.  Losing four out of the past five tests certainly isn’t winning. I knew Mitchell was an accountant, but I hadn’t realised he’d played for the NZ Colts 50 years ago.

The issue to me is that the All Blacks are not only about rugby, they are about New Zealand.  Their brand is synonymous with NZ. That brand is important, having been valued as a multimillion-dollar brand.  It achieved that because it had the ability to deliver repeated success and winning on the big stage.  It is huge for NZ, having a global fan base of 60 million people. 

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Putting that in perspective, the team has 12 supporters for every man, woman and child living in New Zealand. The 2019 World Cup in Japan generated 857 million viewers, with the experts believing that next year’s event in France will be even greater. Test rugby in NZ is not just a game.  It is an important part of our culture and, more importantly, it provides us with a recognisable brand on the world stage. That brand was created on our ability to win and it is obviously losing its gloss and value and something needs to be done about it. 

As one who played his rugby more with enthusiasm than ability, I’m not going to castigate the All Blacks.  It isn’t easy to get to play at that level and I don’t believe a player wouldn’t give his all at test level and I don’t agree with the suggestion it is the worst All Blacks team ever.  Rugby today is much harder and faster than it was and I don’t believe you can honestly compare today’s teams with those of an earlier era, so I’m going to sheet the blame firmly at NZRFU board level. 

As it says on NZ Rugby’s website, the board is charged with setting strategy, direction and policy for NZ Rugby and is ultimately responsible for the decisions and actions of NZR management and staff.

My polite question would be to ask what strategy and direction? Let’s start with coaches. 

Sir Graham Henry was superb. Despite some original speed wobbles, he set the team up.  He was followed by Steve Hansen, and how much he contributed and how much was Sir Graham’s legacy we don’t know.  We now have Ian Foster.

Coaching selection has always been a mystery to me.  Take NZ Rugby’s decision to appoint Mark Hammett as Hurricanes coach, even though he was unproven in that role. 

The reason we in the provinces were given was that he was marked for greater things.

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Hammett’s claim to fame, in my book, was encouraging most of the Hurricanes stars to join other franchises and then moving from the Hurricanes to relative obscurity. Dave Rennie unsuccessfully applied for the job and is now the head coach of Australia.  We also lost Jamie Joseph, Tony Brown, Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt overseas, although the latter two have since returned. 

Rennie’s time with the Chiefs was more successful than Foster’s.  The two most successful coaches in NZ are Razor Robertson and Leon MacDonald.; Robertson applied for the top job but failed.

Something must change and change now if we are to maintain the value of the All Black billion-dollar brand and with it the nation’s fortunes. That should encourage incisive action from the NZRFU board, although I’m not holding my breath. 

So I’m not blaming the players or the coach. If you’re offered a plum job you’ll take it. I’m blaming the NZRFU board.

The next two tests in South Africa will be interesting.

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