The summer game has been through far lower lows than rugby is experiencing right now. But instead of putting up walls, it set about dismantling them.
This story first appeared on The Bounce, a Substack newsletter by Dylan Cleaver.
It has been painful yet instructive watching the slow-moving train crash that is New Zealand Rugby’s once-carefully engineered communications strategy.
The All Blacks lost on Saturday night – you might have heard about it. It was a crushing blow to any pretence that they were still a great team just going through a rough patch. Since that loss, the ABs’ comms team has done the equivalent of making sure they are constantly tackled behind the off-field gain line. It’s been an object lesson in not what to do.
The wrongs and further wrongs of cancelling the Sunday morning press call (without Foster’s input, apparently) have been duly mocked and lanced. It’s tempting to add paraffin to the bonfire because the tenor of the referenced LinkedIn post is so damned obnoxious. The following line being the clearest indication of the contempt NZR holds for those who give the national sport thousands upon thousands more column inches, air and screen time than any other sport here:
“I felt he needed a day or so to work out what he wanted to say and not just be a punching bag for the media, who lets [sic] be clear, wanted blood. Let’s not pretend there was a higher purpose here.”
(I have never met any rugby reporter who has expressed a personal dislike of Foster. He is a thoroughly decent person. There are many who do not believe he is up to the job of being the head coach of a struggling All Blacks side, but the idea rugby reporters are after “blood” is pure paranoia.)
Adding to the pile-on could be fun and probably warranted, but instead it would be more constructive to offer solutions. My first would be to burn it down and start again.
When starting again, understand these two truths as your bedrock:
- The media are there to cover New Zealand Rugby, not serve it;
- If your default position is that the collective media is an adversary, do not then act hurt when the relationship becomes adversarial.
My biggest single piece of advice would be to spend an away day with rugby’s summer cousins and take notes.
New Zealand Cricket has hit depths far lower than rugby. Circa 2012-13, the “Black Caps” brand was toxic. The results were poor, the players were entitled, the captaincy was a topic fraught with speculation, the new coach was unpopular and every series seemed to bring a new calamity.
(They’d also just come through Justin Vaughan, CEO, era. In many ways he is reminiscent of Mark Robinson. Both had represented their country at the sport they ended up leading, both were intellectual, driven, confident and competent individuals – and both struggle(d) to communicate with the public in a relatable way.)
But where NZR continues to throw up walls whenever times are tough, NZC set about dismantling them. They were cognisant of the fact that sports departments in newsrooms around the country were being hollowed out and took steps to make the lives of cricket reporters easier. If they felt that cricket was being under-covered, they would set about trying to offer help. When it was noted there was not a single New Zealand cricket story on the Herald sports homepage in the middle of the 2020-21 summer, they asked what they could do to help support more coverage.
They never tried to influence the tone of said coverage, not overtly anyway.
Over the past 25-odd years I’ve written some ill-informed hot takes on cricket. I’ve written decent takes that I’ve butchered by stretching the point too far, and some columns that have dwelled too long on individual failings. Not once in the past 10 years, not that I can recall anyway, has anybody at NZC contacted me or my editors to criticise or even point out those misjudgements. They even seem grateful for the bad stuff under the no-such-thing-as-bad-publicity communications clause.
Rugby has a different attitude and it’s embedded deep into their psyche. They actually have people send emails to editors bitching about stories. They believe the media is out to get them and that any criticism is an example of playing the man not the ball. The subtext of that is that rugby reporters should bow down and appreciate just how lucky they are that they get to cover the greatest team the world has ever known. And in all honesty, many do.
Compared, say, to the way the English cover football or Australians cover league, New Zealand’s coverage of rugby is obsequious. But if you ask Steve Tew, Grant Fox or the many others of that ilk who have come before or after them about the reams of glowing testimony rugby gets, they’ll instead remember a line Chris Rattue wrote about someone that was really mean.
Their post-match performance was a crystallisation of that bull-headed angst. Instead of fronting up – now there’s a good rugby term – and showing perhaps even a hint of vulnerability, they expected the worst, so further muddied the waters by shielding the coach and instead issuing a mealy statement from the CEO.
Imagine how much more powerful the imagery could have been, and how much shorter the story cycle would have been, if Foster and Robinson had appeared together on Sunday; if Foster had acknowledged the poor results and said how determined he was to put them right; if Robinson had reminded the media that Foster was contracted through to the end of the World Cup and while he and NZR were concerned about the results, their primary focus was to determine what resources the coaches needed to put it right.
Instead it’s Wednesday evening, I’m still (loosely) writing about a poor test and I have no idea what NZR is doing with the coaching staff ahead of the mini-tour to South Africa.