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 The old grey slacks have been replaced by new jet-black trousers and, it seems, from 1999 the All Black image so long the preserve of Canterbury International, a traditional New Zealand sports clothing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.

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