Super Rugby: The intriguing battle is off the field

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Opinion – Two in a row, now that’s something that the Chiefs would have been singing about all over Hamilton last night.

Caleb Clarke from Chiefs v Blues, Super Rugby Aotearoa at FMG Stadium in Hamilton on 27 March 2021.

Caleb Clarke from the Blues at last night’s game at Hamilton’s FMG Stadium. Photo: Photosport

They haven’t been able to do that in over a year, as well as win in front of their own fans, but in knocking off the Blues they showed that a corner may well have truly been turned.

However, the game itself wasn’t much to write home about other than an exciting finish and a breakout performance from Quinn Tupaea.

It proved that the Blues are still probably a fair distance to where they want to be, as serious challengers to the Crusaders – and that the road to the Super Rugby Aotearoa title will once again run through Christchurch, unless Scott Robertson and Richie Mo’unga are both struck by lightning at the same time in the next couple of weeks.

Brad Weber was the only player that fronted the media after the game on behalf of the Chiefs or Blues, only slightly joking that Damian McKenzie’s last play try to win the game came about because the TMO’s ‘owed us a couple, don’t they?’ (Thank goodness someone at Sky TV convinced their bosses to invest in a drone and use it during play, as this was the only way to provide clear evidence that Luke Jacobson’s lead up pass wasn’t forward.)

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While the halfback’s demeanour in front of the microphones was definitely welcome his co-captain Sam Cane was conspicuous in his absence, which may have had something to do with a story that broke in yesterday’s NZ Herald outlining the New Zealand Rugby Players Association’s (NZRPA) opposition to the proposed acquisition of a share of NZ Rugby by American private equity firm Silver Lake.

Cane was one of a number of players who signed a letter saying the NZRPA is not convinced the move is in the best interests of the game, saying (among many other things):

“The relationship between New Zealanders and the All Blacks, the Black Ferns and other representative rugby teams is difficult to put into words, but we all understand it to be a special bond related to New Zealand pride and identity … we believe there is a risk that this special bond and the nature of what rugby means to New Zealanders, players and spectators alike, is at risk in the proposed transaction.”

Hmmm, a quick look around any rugby ground and the amount of empty seats there are during games right now would tell you that the ‘special bond’ has been under immense strain for quite a while, guys. Oh, and plummeting player numbers.

The more immediate concern would be to cast a very critical eye over the supposed third party entity that will take over the marketing of the game.

NZ Rugby should be at least indicating who is going to be running this entity, for a start. If it’s just another stooge from their office, nothing is going to change anyway.

Like the Herald article said, NZ Rugby’s marketing policies around the All Blacks are achingly out of touch.

So if Silver Lake are going to try and get more bang for their buck, the NZRPA are right to at least query how much more money the players are going to get if a new regime comes in with different ideas on how to sell the brand.

It would be better if they didn’t wrap their argument up in emotional talk about ‘special bonds’, when anyone who has been following the All Blacks recently will know that the brand has been sold around the world at every opportunity anyway. Test matches in Japan, Hong Kong and the USA didn’t just happen for nothing and it’s worth remembering the haka was originally performed way back in the 19th century as a way of helping attract crowds.

Nevertheless, NZ Rugby needs the NZRPA’s approval on the deal in order for it to proceed. That seems like a pretty tall order, so perhaps we’ll have to be content with Super Rugby Aotearoa post match press conferences that don’t feature the winning try scorer, All Black captain or anyone from the opposition for the time being.

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