The All Blacks have always had an image problem in Britain and Ireland. Expatriate Kiwi journalist Wallace Reyburn, best known for his biography of 19th-century celebrity plumber Thomas Crapper (Flushed with Pride, since you ask), labelled the 1967-68 All Blacks “the unsmiling giants”. And they were one of few All Blacks teams to tour the UK without becoming embroiled in controversy.
An Irish newspaper likened the 1991 All Black World Cup squad to gravediggers. When Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu insisted their tandem cleanout of British and Irish Lions captain Brian O’Driscoll wasn’t intended to cause injury, an Observer columnist wrote “only the Japanese take longer to apologise than the All Blacks”, an analogy that joined the dots between the Rape of Nanking and a dislocated shoulder. An Irish journalist called the All Blacks “the most cynical group of athletes assembled outside of an Olympics sprint final. Anything it takes to win, they will stoop to it – violence, assaults, cheating …”
There are various reasons for this derangement, the most obvious being the All Blacks’ dominance. Scotland and Ireland have been trying and failing to beat the All Blacks for a hundred years; Wales is on a 25-game losing streak stretching back to 1953. Incontrovertible though the evidence would appear to be, it’s perhaps understandable that rugby folk in those countries clutch at straws rather than acknowledge that New Zealanders are simply much better at the game and probably always will be. (As we were painfully reminded last weekend, the same can’t be said about England.)
Whenever their Northern Hemisphere critics are running low on ammunition, the All Blacks obligingly re-equip them. Thus Andrew Hore’s blindsiding of Welshman Bradley Davies gave the British rugby media the perfect excuse to extrapolate with a vengeance. Herewith the Observer:
“The exit of Davies offers evidence to the case for the denial of brilliance to these All Blacks. They play lovely rugby, but they are not lovely sportsmen. It’s a charge that follows them through the ages: the glitter of their skills is countered by their cynicism.”
TV footage released after the game showed Davies went to some lengths to obstruct Hore, and was certainly asking for a decent shove in the back. But there are few more dangerous acts or disturbing sights on the rugby field than the over-the-shoulder king hit that leaves the victim face-down in the turf.
It also dislodged the All Blacks from the moral high ground they occupied after the International Rugby Board’s vexatious manoeuvring to extend the ban imposed on Adam Thomson for a comparatively piffling offence. Some All Blacks teams that toured Europe in the amateur era seemed to adopt the old Millwall Football Club mindset: “No one likes us, we don’t care.” They weren’t fondly remembered, but that was the extent of the fallout.
In the professional era, the All Blacks brand is New Zealand rugby’s financial salvation and unique selling proposition (USP). With the domestic market at saturation point, the Rugby Union must seek opportunities and partners further afield: Europe, with its population, wealth and rugby awareness, is a prime target market. However, foul play besmirches the image of a team driven by the pursuit of excellence and the mystique based on unparalleled success with inimitable style.
A hard-bitten Central Otago farmer, Hore is something of a folk hero because he harks back to the days before brands and USPs when you obstructed an All Black forward at your peril. But as a senior player and member of the leadership group, he must surely be aware that those days are gone. And why.