What would the late Sir Colin Meads have thought? The man voted as the All Black of the 20th century was not beyond pragmatism, as he showed by coaching the rebel Cavaliers in South Africa in 1986, a year after the originally sanctioned official tour was thwarted by the law courts.
Even so, news of the proposed hybrid game between his cherished All Blacks and rugby league’s Kangaroos would likely have been a step too far. For most of Meads’ life, league was the game’s enemy, the haven of those whose “palms had been crossed with silver”, a competing product and a poacher of talent.
That view has softened considerably since the professionalisation of rugby union in 1995 and the cross pollination of ideas and personnel is now commonplace, but there remain risks for New Zealand rugby in the proposal. They probably outweigh the material gain of a one-off payment and may ultimately kill off the idea.
Generations of former national representatives have long celebrated the history and prestige the black jersey represents. This is a perception New Zealand Rugby has itself regularly championed, in holding up the All Blacks and their success rate as a unique presence on the international sporting landscape.
The former players retain a powerful collective voice, and the trivialising of the jersey for such an event – financial benefits or not – will sit uneasily, especially for those prior to 1995 who went unpaid as they helped to build up the All Black legacy.
The immediate public reaction suggested, predictably, that there was no shortage of scepticism about the concept in pubs and clubs throughout the country as well. This sentiment is not something New Zealand Rugby can afford to ignore, especially given the promising shoots the restart of the season has provided, in terms of public re-engagement with the game.
Whether the hybrid concept gets off the ground or not though, do not be surprised if there are more left-field All Black money-making ideas to come in the years ahead.
Recent personnel changes on the New Zealand Rugby board, most notably with the arrival of the Melbourne Storm part-owner and former chairman Bart Campbell, point towards a more aggressive and single-minded commercial strategy.
The fact that Campbell was rushed onto World Rugby’s executive as one of the country’s representatives, as soon as his tenancy on the New Zealand board began, suggests he is already one of the union’s prime movers.
It is an interesting position for a director to be in, given the potential overlap of Campbell’s other business interests, especially in rugby league, where he was recently named in dispatches as the lead figure in a potential $600m private investment, to buy a 20% stake in the NRL.
The appointment by the board of the former player agent and marketeer as an independent director provoked criticism at the time. It was suggested his ascendancy represented a loss of values by the New Zealand union.
While that charge did not go down well in private with the union’s leadership, the facts are that less than two months later, the board has greenlighted formal discussion about the All Blacks playing a money game against the flagship of a rival code its new director retains a financial stake in. Coincidental or otherwise, it is not a terribly good look.
Nor was it especially positive for the country’s trans-Tasman teammate in Sanzaar. Given the need for a long term closely aligned to New Zealand, regardless of what the future holds for the Sanzaar alliance, Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan astutely displayed indifference at the prospect of an All Black-Kangaroos game, although one can only imagine what the reaction was at the organisation’s Moore Park headquarters when the exercise was first mooted.
Rugby in Australia has long carried a sizeable chip on its shoulder with regards to league, which the New Zealand board would be naive to underestimate.
With the game on its knees, and bumper Bledisloe crowds and TV ratings later in the year its only real financial salvation, the last thing Rugby Australia needs is its closest ally consorting with its greatest domestic rival.
As well as being a fantastic propaganda coup for rugby league, the hybrid game could also easily undermine this year’s proposed Bledisloe series in the eyes of the casual Australian sports fan, whose re-engagement is so critical if professional rugby in Australia is to get back on its feet.
Then there is the risk for rugby union in the actual hybrid game itself. What if the All Blacks lost? What damage would such an indignity potentially do, to the prestige of the code in general, but the aura that surrounds the All Blacks, in particular?
While such consequences are easy to downplay – and the fact that discussions are continuing suggest there are at least some on the New Zealand Rugby board who have already done so – the union dismisses them at its peril.
As New Zealand Rugby’s commercial team is all too aware, the international sponsorship market is a challenging beast, and was so even before Covid-19 added another layer of difficulty. In such a climate, is a quick payday worth taking any risks with the tradition and global reputation of the game’s most recognisable team?
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