In October 2003 All Black selector Mark Shaw launched a tirade against the rugby media –
`You`ve got a lot of fleas in the system. They write shit they`ve got no idea what of what they`re talking about`.
In his view the press had become tabloid, hungry for headlines and less analytical about the game. In these circumstances one could not waste time `talking footy with fleas`. Shaw and team coach John Mitchell, both ex-All Blacks, were focused on the rugby World Cup of that year. The media were an irritant, winning the tournament would answer all their criticisms.
We now know that this strategy failed dismally.
Australia won the semi-final and senior All Blacks were taunted by the victors- `four more years !`. John Mitchell was shown the door instantly, before the media rounded for the kill. Mr Shaw had a point though. Non- specialist media exploit the All Black profile for commercial-tabloid purposes regardless of results. Lose, and hyper-critical columnists channel popular disappointment.
Handwringing post-mortems pervade broadcast media. Win, and fawning media personalities will squeeze the last dollar from every tabloid angle and patriotic trope. We are all enjoined to be goodwill ambassadors for the team.
In one sense this is not suprising, the media has always reflected rugby union`s cultural centrality. Something changed though when the game became professional and fully commercialised from 1996. Each contracted All Black was expected to sign merchandise, wear corporate logos and pose for photographs designed to enhance the marketing objectives of major sponsors. High profile players routinely endorsed a range of products and services. At the same time commercially driven media organisations treated the All Blacks as an endlessly productive ATM machine. Banner headlines, columns, colour pics, interviews, gossip pieces, rugby banter among talkback hosts , DJ`s,TV newsreaders, inane reports from outside the team hotel…..all of this translated into ratings , readership and advertising dollars.
Social media intensifies the process; constant web updates, video footage, twitter feeds and facebook chat – all fuel for the 24/7 news cycle.
There is also political capital to be made, as our Prime Minister well knows. Before this World Cup the All Black squad announcement came from Parliament buildings rather than a non-political venue. After the heartstopping semifinal win over the Springboks the PM turned up in the All Black dressing room, open-necked shirt ,beer in hand. The web pic of him with the much taller Sam Whitelock went viral and was followed by a congratulatory tweet to hammer the not so subtle point home.
`Hello I`m John Key Prime Minister of New Zealand and leader of the National Party, I`m cool with the All Blacks and their success enhances my popularity`.
Before the final Key chatted amiably to Mike Hoskings in London, live on radio to wellwishers back in New Zealand. After the All Blacks victory over Australia and the raising of the trophy he pulled back. No cringeworthy pics from the players` dressing room, just a nice neutral photo with Andrew Little, leader of the Labour Party. The Prime Minister`s advisors and internal polling feedback must have warned him about a possible backlash from rugby fans.
Mark Shaw`s criticisms of the tabloid media are also applicable to politicians. Yet, it seems that the Prime Minister still can`t help himself. On Monday November 2nd John Key confirmed that All Black Skipper Richie McCaw would be offered a knighthood after leading New Zealand to two World Cup wins. In an interview with TV 3`s Paul Henry on Wednesday November 4th the Prime Minister spoke again on the knighthood issue, on Richie McCaw`s behalf. Viewers were informed that McCaw wasn`t philosophically opposed to a knighthood and that he would most likely take it upon retirement. In this regard Key remarked that `we are pretty close but I don`t bother asking him`.
This is clearly a breach of etiquette if not of privacy and it is also disingenuous. The All Black captain was offered a knighthood after winning the 2011 World Cup even though he was committed to playing on. Clearly, from McCaw`s perspective, training with his peers and running on to the field as a `Sir` would have diluted the team ethos.
Upon retirement, however, there are still good reasons not to accept the knighthood.
The connection between rugby union, English royalty and the English ruling class is alien to the culture of the New Zealand game. That’s why beating England at Twickenham has always motivated All Black teams and coaches. And, while it was marvellous to see the All Black captain raise the trophy, the role of Prince Harry in presenting the medals seemed at odds with the egalitarian All Black culture advanced by coach, players and captain. Within New Zealand, the offer of a knighthood signifies entry into the ruling establishment. In this case, the establishment and its ruling party gain capital from the players ,our men in black who actually do the hard work. So, don`t accept the knighthood Richie ,your extraordinary accomplishments and those of the team speak for themselves , they require no further adornment. Taking such a stance would cut through the commercial and political clutter and present you as a true New Zealander.