Rugby Union: All black and all powerful

The Untouchables: Changing times for the force of world rugby on an empire-expanding crusade; Andrew Longmore talks to New Zealand's favourite son as the image makers move in

It did not take long for the 1997 All Blacks to persuade the assembled media of the seriousness of their intentions. Barely minutes after arriving at their hotel in Windsor last week, the 36 members of the touring party had gathered for a press conference, dressed from top to toe in black and radiating a menace usually confined to the hitmen in Pulp Fiction. The men in black clearly mean business. Big business.

Since the answers to a questionnaire revealed a startlingly adverse public perception, the New Zealand Rugby Board have worked hard to repackage and sell a new brand of smart, classy, designer label All Black. The old grey slacks have been replaced by new jet-black trousers and, it seems, from 1999 the All Black image so long the preserve of Canterbury International, a traditional New Zealand sports clothing company, will be handed over at considerable cost to the global giants of Adidas, a shift of direction which ties in neatly with the golden age of professionalism but sits uneasily with the purists who fear that the sacred All Black jersey is about to become as debased as a Chicago Bulls vest or a Manchester United shirt. "There has always been an All Black image," Richard Fry, sponsorship manager, said. "Recently there have been moves to refine it, to make it more international, more contemporary, ambitious and classier."

The Silver Fern and the Haka have always been symbols of excellence, the prime export of a nation dedicated to breeding sheep and rugby players. What has suddenly dawned on the New Zealanders is just how powerful an 80 per cent winning record can be in sport's new marketing vocabulary. "Somebody like Marks & Spencer would be a very good parallel," Mike Banks, the manager of the touring team and a member of the NZRU board, said. "That's the value of the All Black brand. It has a respectability earned over 100 years of success." From purely domestic sponsors, the All Blacks now take the field backed by pounds 5m worth of household names such as Coca- Cola, Ford, Philips and Mizuno. Only their principal backers, Steinlager, reflect the old spirit of little New Zealand against the world.

It has not always been the way. The All Black tradition came under threat from the growth of soccer, on the backs of New Zealand's unlikely qualification for the 1982 World Cup, the expansion of Australian rugby league and an unacceptable increase in the number of neck and back injuries to young players. Mothers encouraged their sons to take up less dangerous games. The average Kiwi kid was more likely to be wearing a Brisbane Broncos league shirt than an All Blacks union jersey. To add to the problems, the All Blacks had an image problem. They won a lot, but entertained rather little, and smiled even less.

Two years ago, the new coach, John Hart, and the NZRU sent out a questionnaire to members of the media asking them to rate the All Blacks in terms of image, approachability and co-operativeness on a scale from 0-10. The average rating was below five. And if the journalists, who help to transmit the message, held that sort of negative perception, what chance did New Zealand rugby have of finding big new sponsors to pay the pounds 150,000 annual wages demanded by the new professionals?

"So John [Hart] and Jane Dent [the media liaison officer] and I went off on a roadshow round New Zealand to talk to the media and see what we could do to change things and then we took it back to the players," Banks explained. "We found it was a philosophical difference. The media was seen by the players as an obligation, we had to instil in them that it was an opportunity to present themselves well and that they had an obligation to fulfil the same standards off the field as on it." So the notion of the corporate All Black emerged. Out went the old grey slacks and the grinding style of play; in came the fancy fashions, the slick handling and the commercial breaks.

Inside the All Black camp, the idea that winning was not enough also came as a shock, particularly to a friendly soul like Frank Bunce, who will, as he says, "talk to anyone anytime anywhere". "We were clearly seen as arrogant and aloof, but when you're on the inside looking out it's hard to see that," Bunce said. "Since he took over, John [Hart] has made us much more aware of our whole image, the way we play and the way we act. It's not good enough just to win anymore, we have to win with style. I mean sometimes, we've been sitting in the dressing-room after a game really down on ourselves and it's taken someone like Ian Jones to remind us: 'Hey, guys, we won'. We're seen as role models and we have to act accordingly.

"I'm no longer seen as Frank Bunce, I'm seen as Frank Bunce, All Black. If I do something wrong, even when I'm away from the team, I'm letting down the image of the team. That's changed a lot. Being an All Black is no longer just part-time, it's a way of life." As the first-time Blacks, who dressed in T-shirt and tracksuit top instead of a shirt with collar, found out at their first-team lunch. They were given a warning; next time the Draconian dress code committee will rumble into action. "It's part of the discipline which the young guys have to learn," Bunce added. "Some find it hard at first to see how dressing properly for lunch helps you to win Tests, but discipline off the field - never being late for meetings or for training, and dressing smart - carries over on to the field."

Adidas have pitched the cachet of the All Blacks at close to pounds 20m. The deal, which will run from 1999, has been accepted by the NZRB, though Canterbury International have the right to match the offer. "Real Madrid, AC Milan, Manchester United, the Chicago Bulls, the Brazilian football team - those sort of names travel," Robin Money, the corporate relations manager of Adidas, said. "Rugby is not a truly global sport yet, but the All Blacks have a chance to help the game develop globally. We see the All Blacks as a huge global brand. Black is a very strong, intimidating colour to work with."

The fear for some is that the real family silver might be sold along with the fakes. Though the All Blacks have never shied away from drafting in a few south islanders when it suited them, a precious national heritage has been created which makes them different from United or the Bulls and which is so powerful every player feels a duty to hand it on in the name of all the great players who have gone before.

"The preservation of the All Black culture is paramount," Banks says. As Adidas might discover, the All Black jersey is equally sacrosanct. Concerned that the sale of replicas might cheapen the real thing, the NZRU now embosses each Test jersey with the individual game or the tour on the right sleeve to mark it out as genuine. In another long-standing ritual, every new Black player is presented with a tie after his first international, not out on the field for public view, but in the privacy of the dressing-room, in front of his team-mates alone. Some slices of All Black excellence are just not for sale.

News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
News
Robyn Lawley
people
News
people
Life and Style
lifeDon't get caught up on climaxing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
Sport
Romelu Lukaku puts pen to paper
sport
Arts and Entertainment
Unhappy days: Resistance spy turned Nobel prize winner Samuel Beckett
books
News
people
News
A speech made by the Turkish Deputy Prime Minister urging women not to laugh in public in order to preserve morality has sparked a backlash on social media from women posting defiant selfies of themselves laughing at his remarks.
GALLERYWhy are Turkish women having a chuckle at the government's expense?
News
i100
Life and Style
Phones will be able to monitor your health, from blood pressure to heart rate, and even book a doctor’s appointment for you
techCould our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?
News
people
Extras
indybest
Travel
Ryan taming: the Celtic Tiger carrier has been trying to improve its image
travelRyanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?
Life and Style
Slim pickings: Spanx premium denim collection
fashionBillionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers 'thigh-trimming construction'
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Data Analyst

£30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable software house is looking ...

SAP PROJECT MANAGER

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MAN...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Developer

£50000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A unique and rare opport...

Team Secretary - (Client Development/Sales Team) - Wimbledon

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Secretary (Sales Team Support) - Mat...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star