Jenga, bumper boats, waka ama, go-karting, archery, ______? It would take some kind of pattern recognition genius to figure out what activity will herald the beginning of the next Super Rugby season in New Zealand. Calum Henderson looks back at the evolution of the season launch in pictures.
It started with a game of off-brand Jenga.
For years all New Zealand’s Super Rugby season launches seemed to involve was standing around. The locations would change – from rugby ground to convention center to a Rebel Sport store in a mall – but the poses remained the same. The only thing the players were required to do for the cameras was stand there and demonstrate the new season’s jerseys, often paired incongruously with model’s own smart-casual jeans.
But in 2011 at the Auckland Museum a quiet revolution took place: the team captains faced each other at Jenga. Richie McCaw was there, back before he had won even a single World Cup, carefully deconstructing his Crusaders-red tower with the help of a young fan. His opposition came in the form of Mils Muliaina, Andrew Hore, Jamie Mackintosh and Keven Mealamu. No record exists of who won.
The earliest season launch photo in the Getty Images database dates back to the 2000 season, when the halfbacks from every New Zealand franchise gathered on Westpac Stadium to show off their shiny new adidas kits – the first after the switch from Canterbury of New Zealand, who were still making jerseys out of old-fashioned cotton. It set the tone for the next decade of ‘standing around’ photoshoots.
The following year’s season launch, held in a darkened room somewhere within the fortress of Eden Park, put the players behind a menacing low wall of flames. It produced what may be the most of-its-era photograph you will ever see.
The best season launch of the ‘standing around’ era was probably 2009, when astroturf and goalposts turned the floating pavilion in Auckland Harbour into a floating prison for ten of our most talented rugby players, marooned there until either they swum back to shore or a kind-hearted boatie picked them up.
The following year everyone was back on dry land, positioned like Lego figures around the Super 14 logo and slogan painted on the Trusts Stadium turf specifically for the photoshoot. It’s a bit of a sorry scene, and seemingly prompted someone somewhere to suggest something to the effect of “why don’t we get them to do something… Jenga?”
Jenga obviously proved a huge hit with everyone involved, because they have never looked back. 2012 saw the players take to bumper boats at Rainbow’s End. Richie was back for more, taking to his boat like it was a ride-on mower on his quarter-acre lifestyle block. A newly World Cup-winning All Blacks captain, probably nobody had the guts to bump him.
In 2013 players again took to the water – this time the Hauraki Gulf for a spot of waka ama. Unlike most previous seasons this launch didn’t feature the team captains; the Blues sent along the duo of Francis Saili and Charlie Faumuina, and they left the rest of the field struggling in their wake.
Extreme Karts in East Tamaki was chosen to host 2014’s season launch, where some of Super Rugby’s fastest and most furious were outdriven by a referee. “The ref always wins and he’s always right,” conceded the Blues’ 3rd placegetter Francis Saili after the race.
After a series of increasingly fast-paced season launch activities, things were sensibly dialled back a notch for 2015. Teams instead took to an archery range, providing a pun-hungry media with a tantalising alley-oop. The Herald duly and graciously slam-dunked it with the headline ‘Cruden on target for Chiefs’ campaign’.
What comes next in this endless multisport tournament? We should know before long – in recent years the season launches tend to have been held some time in early February. Paddleboarding? Trampolining? The sensory maze at the Queen Street IMAX? Anything is possible.