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July 7, 2008 | by  | in Opinion |
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All Backing the All Bucking All Blacks

Since the All Blacks’ embarrassing flunking of World Cup 101 in Cardiff, a palpable wave of indifference has swept over our rabid rugby nation, gushing over the levees of our fraternal sporting affection and drowning our collective sorrows. This year’s Super 14 has hardly caught the imagination of a public looking for redemption; if anything it has been an exercise in lethargy, as week after week of astonishingly average footy curdled before our very eyes like cheap service station coffee, leaving us all with a sickly sensation tantamount only to that felt by fans of the Russell Crowe Rabbitohs.

But try as they might to inject a sense of razzmatazz into this tired old game of ours with a needle of free kicks, quick lineouts, bouncy castles, steel cage matches and streakers-cum-newsreaders, the powers that reside over the game that once caught this country’s imagination have demonstrated a fretful inability to wrench it out of the rut it’s in and drop kick it into the twenty first century. And there is no clearer example than that of the NZRU’s policy surrounding international eligibility.

You see, folks, clubs in the Northern Hemisphere have this commodity that the NZRU, try as they might, can’t seem to get their hands on: money – sweet, delicious pounds and euros – that little extra spice that makes Carl Hayman’s existence extra nice. This “money,” has an indelible hold over the game of rugby, and the NZRU can no longer compete with the wallets of the sirs and monsieurs in Europe. Their only leverage up until now has been a black jersey with a silver fern and a funny-looking German sports brand logo. Should you, Joe Rugby, harbour desires upon this revered fashion item, you’ve gotta be living and plying your craft somewhere between Cape Reinga and Bluff (you don’t wanna be playing footy out on the Chatham Islands – rumour has it they pack down scrums with wild chooks…)

This was all fine and dandy until the prospect of lauded international duty culminated in six boring test matches against South Africa and Australia, a sleepy home series against a couple of second-string outfits from up north and a predictably dour tour of those same northern outfits in November/December. Suddenly, the black jersey wasn’t, well, exciting enough. The honour of performing our hakas after getting choked up at God Defend New Zealand turned out to be a bit of a snore. Throw in the fact that your coach and fellow men in black are universally reviled despite an exemplary winning record, and you can hardly blame our elite for jetsetting it off to scenic Northampton for 500,000 pounds a year.

So, here’s what you do, NZRU. Let them. Let them go. Let them be free. Let them frolic around the fields of France drinking expensive wine, living in charming villas and serenading scores of lavish European women who can barely pronounce their names let alone know what country they’re form. Let them be lads, NZRU, for you still forever hold the trump card: the All Black brand.

Traditionalists will scold me for calling the jersey Buck Shelford’s scrotum was torn in a “brand,” but that’s exactly what it is, and it’s an incredibly powerful one at that. Rugby needs the All Blacks. In order for the game to latch onto those lucrative markets in Asia and the USA, the good guys in black need to be a dynamic and, most importantly, a relevant force.

Regardless of how many elite players Toulon or Munster acquire, they’ll never have the potential to awaken the imagination of the international rugger fan quite like the visage of an All Black team; they are Manchester United, the New York Yankees and David Beckham to rugby, and as sure as Dan Carter will be earning Euros next year, world rugby cannot afford to see its most powerful brand sag.

The NZRU needs to use this to their advantage. By advocating the advent of a global international season which includes an international tour circuit, a bi-seasonal Tri Nations to offset any disinterest and a one-off Bledisloe Cup match to set trans-Tasman hearts racing, the NZRU can call on its marquee players when it needs them, cash in, and let them return to the banality of playing second division footy against Slough RFC.

Of course, there’s still one card left unturned – the grass roots card. New Zealand sports fans, on the whole, aren’t predisposed to supporting anything less than the best. Abandoning the rules surrounding international eligibility will almost certainly see the game here slip over in a slop of ambivalence. But take a look around Carisbrook, cast your eye around Evans Bay Park. It’s happening already.

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Kia ora, biography box, kia ora.

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