As All Blacks soar, scandalhit NZ rugby reels
WHILE the All Blacks are reaching new heights, recent off-field scandals have left New Zealand Rugby struggling to maintain the sport’s image.
NZR admits the game needs to change its macho culture after a series of player incidents involving strippers, street violence and casual sex.
Pundits have dubbed it “the season from hell”, distracting attention from the All Blacks’ bid this weekend to set a new record of 18 consecutive Test victories.
It is an uncomfortable position for rugby administrators, who are used to New Zealanders backing the sport with an almost religious fervour.
New Zealand Herald writer Gregor Paul said the backlash had been exacerbated by NZR’s poor handling of various crises.
“They have been accused of being lenient and guilty of condoning abusive behaviour by doing so little to punish it,” he wrote this week.
“They have had their failings pointed out by just about everyone, but most tellingly by some of the most influential women in the country.”
The problems began in August, when a stripper known as Scarlette said she was abused and demeaned at a Waikato Chiefs end-of-season “Mad Monday” party.
The Chiefs initially suggested her word could not be trusted because of her occupation, and an internal NZR review dismissed her claims and cleared the players.
“A lot of the language immediately after the Chiefs incident was around victim blaming and shaming,” human rights commissioner David Rutherford said at the time.
NZR soon found itself in the spotlight again over its response to a teenage star’s violent rampage on a Wellington street.
The player, Losi Filipo, savagely attacked four people, including two women, but escaped conviction because a judge said it might harm his rugby career.
Officials at first stood by Filipo, only to perform an embarrassing U-turn and agree to terminate his Wellington Rugby contract as public outrage grew.
There were further blows to the game’s image when one provincial player was jailed for masturbating in public and another was charged with intent to commit rape.
In such a heated atmosphere, the timing of an indiscretion by All Blacks half-back Aaron Smith could not have been worse.
The 54-Test veteran was seen entering a disabled toilet cubicle with a mystery woman at Christchurch Airport while he was travelling with the national team the day after a recent Test against South Africa.
While there was no hint of criminal wrongdoing, Smith’s actions was deemed “serious misconduct” that damaged the reputation of the All Blacks and its sponsors.
He was suspended for one Test and voluntarily stood down from another – the October 22 blockbuster match against Australia where his teammates are chasing the record win.
In response to its recent woes, NZR is setting up an independent panel to review “respect and responsibility” in the game.
Politician Louisa Wall, a former rugby international once named NZ women’s player of the year, said cultural change needed to begin at the top.
She said NZR needed to include women at board level and take their contribution to the game seriously.
“The way that women have traditionally been viewed, they’re in the kitchen preparing the food, they wash the uniforms,” she told Wellington’s
Dominion Post newspaper. “We’re not seen as the administrators, the coaches, the umpires.”