Chic with sheep: Auckland aghast at PR stunt for Rugby World Cup

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, although to whom, and whether they were sober, is not clear: celebrate the Rugby World Cup by running a thousand sheep down Auckland's main street, accompanied by bikini-clad models on quad bikes.

Animal rights advocates were outraged, and many New Zealanders – anticipating the inevitable sheep jokes – cringed. In Auckland, a sophisticated city known for its upmarket restaurants and designer clothing labels, shopkeepers complained that the Pamplona-style stunt would be bad for business.

Now the organisers have bowed to public opinion and cancelled the event, which was part of a programme to promote the best of New Zealand industry, from wine to agriculture. Leon Grice, director of New Zealand 2011, a government agency, said it would be unhelpful to "play out this controversy in front of the world's media and international guests".

The plan was to herd the sheep down Queen Street, Auckland's main shopping thoroughfare, during the build-up to the World Cup final in October. They were to be accompanied by sheepdogs, shearers and scantily clad women. Although animal welfare experts were consulted, the New Zealand Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals warned that it could cause the sheep unnecessary distress.

Commentators ridiculed the idea, with Brian Rudman, a columnist for the New Zealand Herald, writing that it would convey an image of Auckland as "Te Kuiti [a sheep-shearing town] on steroids, the place where the Gucci shop gets mobbed by a flock of live Ugg boots".

The reference to Te Kuiti may have convinced organisers that retreat was the best option. When a similar event was staged in the town in 2009 with 2,000 sheep, some of them made a dash for freedom, leaping over street barriers and knocking a female spectator unconscious.

The World Cup kicks off on 9 September, and New Zealand's eagerness to promote itself to the outside world appears to have prompted some questionable decisions. This week, Telecom New Zealand was forced to withdraw an advertising campaign urging Kiwis to abstain from sex during the tournament and save their energy for cheering on the home team, the All Blacks.

The light-hearted ads – featuring a former All Blacks captain, Sean Fitzpatrick, exhorting people to "abstain for the game" – were condemned as embarrassing and offensive. Alan Gourdie, the chief executive of Telecom, a sponsor of the All-Blacks, apologised for misjudging the public mood, admitting that the feedback had been "overwhelmingly negative".

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