Image: Getty / Archi Banal
Image: Getty / Archi Banal

OPINIONSportsJune 22, 2022

New Zealand Rugby’s big new strategy looks sadly familiar

Image: Getty / Archi Banal
Image: Getty / Archi Banal

New Zealand Rugby announced its “Reimagining Rugby” strategy on Tuesday. An underwhelmed Mad Chapman reports.

When you watch the All Blacks train, you watch from a distance. At the Auckland Grammar hockey fields on Tuesday, invited guests of New Zealand Rugby stood the width of a field away from the players as they mostly stood in a team huddle. It felt like exclusive access while also providing little to no insight into how the team operates.

Moments later, as CEO Mark Robinson walked media through New Zealand Rugby’s strategic plan (“Reimagining Rugby”) until 2025, it felt the same. The presentation, across 90 minutes, seemed full of potential and the stage was well set for a new approach to our national game. Here’s the landscape in which this new strategy was revealed:

  • Concussions and rugby is a topic that’s not going away. Just last week, Stuff reported that World Rugby will extend the mandatory concussion stand-down period to 12 days, nearly double the current requirement. After years of incremental action from the global body, the move has been welcomed as a necessary step to increasing player welfare. 
  • Rugby is facing a participation drop in this country, but girls and women playing rugby has increased in recent years (though Covid has negatively impacted participation across the board).
  • New Zealand is preparing to host the 2021 Women’s Rugby World Cup in October, a huge opportunity to dramatically grow interest and engagement among the wider rugby community.
  • Earlier this month, a $200 million deal between US private equity firm Silver Lake and New Zealand Rugby was confirmed, with a promise of heavy investment in numerous aspects of the game.
  • Mere hours before the event began, Leinster rugby player Nick McCarthy publicly came out as gay and received widespread support from players and fans alike.

As someone not often present for such sport media events, I assumed this changing landscape would be heavily referenced in some detail throughout a medium-term strategic plan for New Zealand Rugby as a whole. Instead, what was presented looked eerily similar to the strategic plan of 2020, itself proposed as a five-year undertaking. The new four-year plan has four pillars: “winning with mana”, “rugby at the heart of our communities”, “unleashing rugby’s commercial potential” and “loved game, loved brands”. 

The pillars are hard to disagree with and feel like givens for any national sporting body. But it was hardly “Reimagining Rugby”. I wanted to hear about how NZR will be capitalising on hosting a world cup to slingshot the women’s game (arguably the only part of rugby consistently growing) into the national sporting psyche. Instead, the tournament received a passing mention in Robinson’s introduction.

I wanted to hear about how NZR will encourage parents to sign their kids up for rugby while providing assurance that those same kids would be looked after physically. It’s not an easy task for a sport that has sold itself on its physicality and toughness. One might say it requires a bit of (re)imagination. Observations around tackling technique differences in boys and girls were shared by NZR’s research scientist Danielle Salmon, and I can only hope those observations will lead to tangible outcomes for future players at all levels.

I wanted to hear about how the notoriously inaccessible NZR will adapt to the changing social media landscape where perceived access and familiarity with talent reigns supreme. Where fans don’t want to feel like they’re being advertised to, they want to feel like they’re hearing things straight from the players. Where players like Ruby Tui, who went viral by being the most interesting NZ Rugby interviewee in history (she was great but the bar was low), have single-handedly built a genuine and engaged following by being open and honest about their daily struggles. 

Instead, there was a joke about (traditional) media being critical of NZR and both parties doing their jobs, and then a pledge to be more accessible with no elaboration on what that would look like in a practical sense. 

I wanted to hear about how NZR will be truly making itself more inclusive and open to those who don’t fit the “bloke” demographic. Would there be more integration of the elite men and women players considering how much more inclusive the women’s game (where a number of players are gay and open about it) appears, and acknowledgement of how that could potentially unlock a whole new audience for the game? There was in fact very little said about the women’s game. The cover of the strategy (presented four months before the women’s world cup here in New Zealand) featured only All Blacks.

There were no Black Ferns present – presumably exempt from media responsibilities so shortly after winning the Pacific Four series – and no current women players full stop. A promotional video – put together by the women’s world cup department and released last week – was shown. That video, featuring high school poets, NZR officials, commentators and fans, felt like something new for NZR. The fact that it also felt very out of place within the strategy presentation is exactly the problem. 

At the end of the event, Robinson introduced an exciting new development in tech for NZR, and on the big screen appeared a computer-animated woman wearing a Black Ferns jersey. She introduced herself as Maa (pronunciation unclear), “the world’s first digital Black Fern”, and it was explained that she will be used in promotional videos speaking in a variety of languages to rugby fans all over the world. Considering how hard it is for journalists in this country to speak to real-life Black Ferns, it felt bitterly ironic that the only one present was computer-generated.

The world continues to evolve and industries and organisations continue to adapt to new expectations. People want to feel connected to a player, a team, a sport. The faceless power of a world-class, polished organisation means nothing to a casual observer wondering why the All Blacks and Black Ferns are huddled on the other side of the field. There may very well be moving parts behind the scenes that simply weren’t quite ready for presentation. I can only hope – because they didn’t open the floor for questions.

Update: the promotional video for the women’s world cup was produced by World Rugby, not New Zealand Rugby.

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