Eric Young had a piece in the Sunday Star Times this weekend recollecting the All White’s run to the 1982 World Cup and the antidote it provided from the infamous 1981 Springbok tour. Something that wasn’t really touched on were the parallels between 1981 and 2009.
Now, I’m not suggesting the current state of rugby is anywhere near the divisive and controversial issue it was in 1981, but some of the end products are similar. In the early 80’s the New Zealand public began turning it’s back on rugby for political and safety reasons, now, at the end of the 2000’s apathy and a desire for a better product (feel free to interpret these reasons and their context within their decades however you see fit) has seen a drop in interest in the so called national game. Australian viewership, both on television and at games has dropped markedly as the Socceroos and A-League continue to improve, and the trend looks continue here.
In 1981 the All Whites surged in popularity for two main reasons, 1. They weren’t the All Blacks, and 2. They were winning. These reasons are just as relevant today.
The debacle that was the 2007 Rugby World Cup campaign coupled with the seemingly never-ending season born out of overexpansion (both Super 14 and Air New Zealand Cup) and the endless marketing tired the non-hardcore out. Expanding competitions is always risky in professional sport, eventually a tipping point is reached where the talent pool is stretched too thin, and as the game expands out of traditional markets in the pursuit of more sponsorship and television dollars and a decline in popularity and quality is seen e.g. The NHL. Perhaps this over-saturation wouldn’t be such an issue if the final product was on of top-quality. It isn’t. So many All Blacks, in their primes too, have left domestic competition in recent years chasing money, that you could choose an overseas side that would not only compete with the current All Black squad, but would get at least even odds to beat them. Because the selectors refuse to allow overseas based players into the All Blacks under the guise of protecting the integrity of the domestic competition (not that All Black players don’t sit out large chunks of the Air New Zealand cup anyway), it has led to a severe dilution of the available talent pool. Which brings me to point number two, though as an aside, when cricketers are seen to choose IPL dollars over country they are vilified in the media, All Blacks doing the exact same? Not so much.
The refusal to put the best product on the field, and let’s not kid ourselves, professional sport is a product, has begun to show up in increasingly frequent losses and sloppy performances. In Football there is no such issue; the best possible players are chosen irrespective of where they ply their trade. And because players such as Ryan Nelson can play in high profile overseas competition it furthers their development and strengthens the team as a whole.
In 1981 and throughout the decade junior soccer registrations in New Zealand skyrocketed at rugby’s expense. Now that these young players have grown up the talent available at the top level for each sport has begun to, at least slightly, even out.
So, here we are again, rugby at a crossroads and football on the precipice of something great. Will the beautiflul game once again capture the imagination of New Zealanders and push rugby into the background? Novemeber 14 will go a long way toward letting us know.