Mind Games: What All Blacks’ charm offensive really means

2014-11-09 15:00

What was the real cost of the Chicago “blackout” for US rugby?

The All Blacks’ excursion to the US to play the USA Eagles at Soldier Field in Chicago is being hailed as a breakthrough for rugby, but it might well turn out to be a double-edged sword.

The benefits of the game were obvious – a massive crowd at the home of the Chicago Bears, unprecedented coverage of rugby on various networks, good income generated for the city, and a conduit opened for the Kiwis to look to the US for sporting and business opportunities.

A marketing expert such as Kevin Roberts, the global CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi and a man with a long-standing association with the All Blacks brand, said apart from the commercial advantages, the game would have a “major impact” on rugby in the US.

He claimed US rugby now has more participants than New Zealand and that it was the fastest growing game in all college sports.

Roberts, again invoking the oft-used depiction of the US as the “sleeping giant” of world rugby, added that development of rugby in the US would be “a coup for the All Blacks, who would benefit from a new kind of challenge”.

He added this stinging comment: “They must get tired of going to South Africa and then Australia to ritually hammer the Wallabies every year.”

Roberts expressed the hope that the All Blacks would return to the US within two years as many other cities would want to host them given the $20?million (R225.3?million) windfall Chicago received from the match.

And while the All Blacks were building new bridges in the US, they were also reaching out to Japan – the host nation of the rugby World Cup in 2019.

The Maori All Blacks, in effect New Zealand’s “C” side, played against Japan in Kobe in the first of two tests in the Land of the Rising Sun before ending off with a game against an Asia-Pacific invitational side, made up of top Asian and Polynesian players, in Singapore.

Although cynics would suggest that all this rugby détente by the Kiwis is part of the payback they have to do in return for the votes that won them the hosting of the 2011 World Cup, there can be no denying the All Blacks have gained a jump on other big rugby nations by exploring new frontiers.

Rugby, a game in which only five teams have a realistic chance of winning the World Cup, has to grow. But there is a downside.

The All Blacks smashed the USA Eagles 74-6 and the US’s lack of competitiveness has led to questions whether such mismatches do anyone any good. There might have been some novelty in seeing the world’s best rugby side in action but the allure will quickly wear off if the Eagles continue to be like lambs to the slaughter.

It was the same story in Japan. Like the Americans, the “Cherry Blossoms”, the rather unrugby-like nickname of Japan, competed well at times but in truth were no match for the young Kiwis.

More concerning, looking ahead to future development of rugby in Japan, the squad put together by former Wallabies coach Eddie Jones was captained by New Zealander Michael Leitch and contained a fair sprinkling of “naturalised” Japanese with names like Thompson and Hopgood.

Making do with a “foreign legion” is, of course, true for most nations these days but it does tend to indicate that countries like the US and Japan, might never get on to an equal footing in terms of the 15-man game.

The entry of Sevens into the Olympics in 2016 is going to give the mini format of the game enormous impetus, but there is every indication that the quest for rugby to be truly global will rest with professional clubs.

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