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All Blacks in the red: Why New Zealand need a World Cup win more than you might think

A damning report released in late August highlighted governance and financial problems within New Zealand Rugby, making victory over South Africa in Saturday’s Rugby World Cup final all the more important

Harry Latham-Coyle
in Paris
Tuesday 24 October 2023 14:12 BST
'The boys are fizzing' All Blacks reach record 5th Rugby World Cup final

It landed in late August, rocking New Zealand like a flanker’s perfectly timed tackle to the ribs. The All Blacks were already on their way to France, finishing their final preparations for the Rugby World Cup when a panel conducting long-awaited review of governance released a damning report declaring the constitution and structures of New Zealand Rugby (NZR) “not fit for purpose”.

The report did not paint a pretty picture. “In the panel’s view, New Zealand Rugby has too many professional players,” it explained. The NPC, New Zealand’s provincial competition, is “unsustainable in its current format”. The five franchises that play in the top-level Super Rugby Pacific competition “are struggling financially”.

“New Zealand Rugby in the professional era is a large and complex business,” said chair of the review panel David Pilkington. “The structure it sits within was not designed for a business of this size and complexity.” The financial reports are anything but all black – NZR reported a financial loss of just over NZ$47m (£22.5m) last year.

Which is of deep concern not just for the union, but for rugby globally, too. The problems in New Zealand are reflective of a precarious global ecosystem: too many professional players being paid wages beyond that which their clubs and unions can afford, with revenues not growing to keep up with salary inflation. If a commercial behemoth like the All Blacks is not a sufficient money-spinner to sustain a professional structure, what hopes do emergent unions have?

Rugby is embedded in New Zealand’s culture. It is a vital tool of trade for a land of only five million people, a small collection of islands in the south Pacific afforded global prominence by its ability to punch above its weight on the pitch. Australia coach Eddie Jones remarked this summer that New Zealand’s economy would suffer if his Wallabies beat the All Blacks; an analysis conducted by The New Zealand Herald found that there was some truth to the quip.

The Taranaki Bulls won this year’s New Zealand National Provincial Championship (Getty)

In terms of brand recognition, New Zealand’s national men’s rugby team ranks alongside the biggest sporting entities. Visit almost any inhabited corner of the world and mention rugby, and it is remarkable how often the words “All Blacks” will feature in the reply.

“You have to understand, New Zealand is a very young country and rugby has put this country on the map,” 2011 World Cup-winning head coach Graham Henry once explained to The Guardian. “This country earned respect from the rest of the world for three things: what we did in two world wars, and to a lesser extent what we’ve done on the rugby field. So over time rugby has become a major part of our national identity.”

Do the problems suggest that feeling is fading for some New Zealanders? There is perhaps a developing sense of apathy among domestic fans. Rugby union is no longer so certain of its place in Kiwi hearts. Basketball has surged in popularity in the country, while rugby league’s New Zealand Warriors have sold out Mt Smart Stadium regularly in 2023 as the NRL makes a long-awaited breakthrough across the Tasman.

The Warriors’ average home attendance this season was 22,685; across town, Auckland’s Blues had short of 13,000 in at Eden Park for their Super Rugby Pacific quarter-final against the Waratahs.

Eden Park’s stands were far from full for the Blues’ quarter-final win over the Waratahs in June (Getty)

On the pitch, Super Rugby Pacific has lost its lustre, with South Africa’s move into Europe’s club competitions a blow even if the Fijian Drua have brought a breath of fresh air. The geographical realities of being so isolated mean New Zealand had little option but to re-up a deal with Australia, a rugby nation dealing with plenty of its own struggles. Rumours abound of renewed involvement from Argentina and Japan, or a new American venture, but growing the financial pot will not be easy.

A number of senior figures will depart Aotearoa after this tournament for lucrative contracts in France and Japan, either permanently or on sabbatical. While new stars like Will Jordan and Cam Roigard are emerging, they do not seem to have the same cultural cut-through as the men in black who have come before.

In the 20 years between 2000 and 2020, there was a 20 per cent drop in player participation in rugby union at New Zealand’s secondary schools. The “Baby Blacks” have not made any of the last three U20 Championship finals – is the world’s best rugby production line grinding to a halt?

“I don’t know about falling out [of love] with the game but I think they’re falling out with a few things that are happening within the game, that’s frustrating people. It can be hard to watch at times,” Steve Hansen, who guided the All Blacks to the 2015 World Cup victory, explained to Newstalk earlier this year.

“There’s no dispute that Super Rugby has to change. It’s pretty predictable and still stuck where it was four or five years ago. You go through the quarter-finals and it wasn’t that exciting as you knew who was going to win.

“I haven’t stopped to think about where it’s going to be in 20 years, I’m more worried about where it’s going to be in five ... I think we’re at the crossroads. Unless we make some strong changes and start listening to the people that want to come along and watch it then it will just be the participants playing it.”

However rocky the picture beneath them, the All Blacks clearly remain big business. Last year, a stake in New Zealand Rugby (NZR) was sold to Silver Lake, an American private equity firm also involved in the City Football Group. The deal valued the commercial assets of NZR at NZ$3.5bn (£1.67bn).

The All Blacks are hoping to win a fourth World Cup (Getty)

You suspect the investors will be pretty happy if, come Saturday night, Sam Cane has his hands on the Webb Ellis Cup. Certainly, the commercial landscape will look rather more pleasing if New Zealand’s men join their women back at the top of the rugby world – for the good of an ailing domestic game, the All Blacks need a World Cup win more than you might think.

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