The 1927 New York Yankees, the 1985 Chicago Bears, the 1996 Chicago Bulls, Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ and the 2007 Australian Cricket Team. Add to this list the 2017 New Zealand All Blacks. What do they have in common? Claims to be the greatest sports team of all time.
The All Blacks recently equalled the World Record winning streak of 17 rugby test match victories with a 57-15 demolition of South Africa; a record they already shared with the Springboks. As a result they are now odds on favourites to take the record outright with a win against Australia when the sides meet in the third and final Bledisloe test in Auckland on Saturday (a venue incidentally at which the All Blacks have not lost for 36 matches – a 23-20 defeat at the hands of the French in 1994).
Few would argue with the All Blacks’ claim to the ‘greatest ever’ team title given their latest winning streak ; indeed, that a country with a population of a little over 4 million could dominate a sport for so long is nothing short of remarkable in the modern era.
Such is the aura of the All Blacks that issues pertaining to the captaincy or not winning World Cups (yes, it has happened) are issues felt worthy of being raised in Parliament and will occupy the front and back pages in New Zealand for weeks at a time.
Because of the success of, and status afforded to, the All Blacks, they are by many considered untouchable. However recent events threaten to undermine the revere in which professional rugby players, including the All Blacks, are held in New Zealand.
In August this year, at the end of season celebrations for the Waikato Chiefs at the Okoroire hot pools, accusations of inappropriate behaviour by players were made by a stripper paid to attend the event (an issue which in itself did not appear uncontroversial).
Following an investigation by the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (“NZRFU”) the allegations of sexual assault were found not to be substantiated. Surprisingly for some, the stripper involved was subsequently “released” by the booking agency and the Minister for Women in New Zealand felt the situation “not appropriate” to comment on, a stance supported by the Prime Minister. Less surprisingly several sponsors cut their ties with the Chiefs.
This situation was followed by reports that Losi Filipo, a rising star of the game, had charges of assaulting four individuals, including two women, discharged because of his promising rugby career. Whilst the discharge was criticised by many, several lawyers also pointed out that others in a similar situation would have also had their charges discharged, regardless of their rugby playing ability. Whether or not this is the case Filipo’s team’s subsequent decision not to sanction the player also provoked considerable consternation and claims of favouritism.
Finally, two weeks ago, Aaron Smith was sent home early from South Africa, missing the record equalling victory, after footage emerged of Smith and a “friend”, but not his long term partner, entering a disabled toilet in Christchurch airport for what Private Eye would no doubt determine were ‘Ugandan discussions’. Smith later publically apologised to his partner and teammates and has since “stood down” from the All Blacks’ next match, meaning he loses his chance to be part of a record breaking team.
The position adopted by the NZRFU in each of the above has been criticised for being unduly lenient / protective towards its star players, a position most would agree upon.
It is important that governing bodies are seen to take a firm stance in relation to issues which can affect the integrity of the sport as a whole, whether on or off the field of play. Failure to do so can lead to a loss of trust and confidence in those running the sport from the public and in the long term can be detrimental to participation levels.
It must be hoped that the above issues are but a bump in the road for the NZRFU and that it deals with its next off field crisis quickly and decisively. Otherwise it may find itself losing the on field accolades it has worked so hard to rightly win.