The November internationals always dig up the old debate around whether the Northern Hemisphere is catching up to the Southern Hemisphere, and never more so than in the year before a Rugby World Cup.
If a team doesn’t do well, some pundits ring the alarm bells with forecasts of a disastrous World Cup, while others highlight how previous teams that weren’t great in the November internationals went on to do well at the following World Cup, such as the Boks who struggled in 2006 and won in 2007.
One of the things I’ve learnt in my career is that certain countries try everything they can to create pressure through the media, so in the middle of all this talk, there are teams, coaches and players attacked in the media using quotes from former players and former coaches.
Australia used to have their own guy who travelled with the Wallabies, filmed everything on tour and then released whatever Rugby Australia wanted the media to see. Initially, the media appreciated the free content, but it eventually got to the point where they grew weary of having the storyline controlled by the Wallabies.
Eddie Jones and I crossed swords in the media when we were on opposite ends of the Springbok-Wallabies rivalry, and he later confirmed that the media-show was part of Australia’s plan to promote Test matches and gain a psychological advantage over their opponents.
That’s why, in the build-up to England’s Test against Australia last week, Eddie said he was expecting to read a few barbs from his former Randwick coach Bob Dwyer, and former Wallabies Simon Poidevin and David Campese.
“It’s all lined up, I’m just waiting for it. It’s all coordinated, it’s all fun,” said Eddie. “If you’re a bookmaker you’d bet on when they’re going to say it.”
People talk about the role that marketing, sponsorship, ticket sales and on-field entertainment play in rugby, and the media is also a massive part of that in the buildup to these matches.
But it’s different in New Zealand. The circus is much smaller there.
By their standards, the All Blacks had an average November tour and its given rise to the opinion that Kieran Read should step down as captain, Beauden Barrett isn’t the right guy at flyhalf and coach Steve Hansen looks tired.
But in New Zealand, within 12 hours of such an attack on the team, someone in the media rolls out Richie McCaw and Graham Henry saying something positive about the All Blacks, and what that does is defuse the negativity.
The Kiwi media go out of their way to kill that negative line. If one guy writes that Read is too old, another hack will go and talk to McCaw and turn that story around to say that Kieran is actually the perfect age. It’s been like that for years in New Zealand, and I’m sure it must be part of a code of ethics from the winner’s manual. It can’t be a coincidence.
People talk about how the All Blacks clean the change rooms after a Test, but one thing that isn’t documented is the use of the media. It’s incredible how all forms of media in New Zealand have bought into it – yes, you’ll have a guy who comes out and wants to write a negative piece and create sensation, but the way they respond to it is exemplary.
I think all the stakeholders in New Zealand understand what the team means to everybody and the importance of the players being at their best so that the All Blacks do well.
They know that writing negative stories will affect public sentiment, player confidence and team cohesion, and that’s why you almost never read anything that’s personal or vindictive in the New Zealand media because no-one there wants to play any part in the All Blacks’ demise.
And that doesn’t mean that everything is squeaky clean in New Zealand rugby. I’ve got no doubt that, for argument’s sake, the president of Taranaki isn’t best buddies with his opposite number in Auckland, and maybe the Chiefs guys think the Crusaders are arrogant, but it’s New Zealand first, and everyone buys into it.
I’m not talking about the Kiwi media squashing bad news, I mean they choose to write up the positive.
It’s certainly much easier to be positive about a team that wins 90% of their matches, but it’s chicken and egg. In South Africa, Nick Mallett got good press as the Boks marched to 17 Test victories in a row. And then, when it counted most, the media turned on a coach who had a 70% win record.
The All Blacks are not the best in the world just because they’ve got central contracting, they’ve also solved everything that happens outside of that, and you really have to complement them. Well done, New Zealand!