31 Aug 2015

Dangerous play with sport and politics

5:25 pm on 31 August 2015

Rugby is New Zealand's national sport, Prime Minister John Key told Morning Report on Monday. It was therefore appropriate for the Minister of Sport to host the All Blacks naming of the squad for the Rugby World Cup, he said.

John Key congratulates squad members.

John Key congratulates squad members. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Mr Key told the programme he was interested in rugby, and it would be a bit odd if he wasn't.

"Helen Clark's pretty much on record saying she doesn't really love rugby but she still used to turn up to the All Blacks all the time," he said.

But the decision to host the All Blacks World Cup squad naming announcement at Parliament has still raised eyebrows.

"Parliament is the House of Representatives and it represents every New Zealander, and the All Blacks are admired by every New Zealander," Mr Key said.

"So I think it's appropriate - it's what they wanted, to mark the significance of a team that is hopefully going out to win back-to-back World Cups."

But a lot of people on Twitter and Facebook begged to differ.

Mr Key told Morning Report that his office is covered in "sporting stuff" from events he's been to and people he's met. And rugby has indeed been a feature of his political career.

In a televised debate before being elected PM, he was asked if he'd been for or against the 1981 Springbok tour, which divided New Zealand. Mr Key replied that he couldn't remember, but that he hadn't had a strong feeling on it at the time - an answer that puzzled some people.

If hosting the announcement was politicising the All Blacks, it's the latest in a string of times when politics and rugby have been combined. There was the three-way handshake as All Black captain Richie McCaw was presented with the World Cup in 2011.

All Blacks caption Richie McCaw (left) and Waisake Naholo.

All Blacks caption Richie McCaw (left) and Waisake Naholo. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Before that, Mr Key joked about the importance of winning the tournament, saying he'd given the captain the hard word, Stuff.co.nz reported.

"I've tried to tell Richie McCaw that it's very important - it's an election year," he said.

Former All Blacks Israel Dagg and Jonah Lomu got in hot water for tweeting their support for John Key and the National Party on election day - and in doing so, breaking electoral rules.

Even Max Key gets a look in, instagramming from the locker room after a test match.

Good win tonight fellas and well done Richie ✨

A photo posted by ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀✨MAX KEY✨ (@maxkey_) on

Further back, the Otago Daily Times reported as early as 1920 that an MP, Mr LM Isitt, suggested Parliament should adjourn for a couple of hours to watch the football match between New Zealand and Wellington.

"Apart from strong drink and gambling, Mr Isitt is generally recognised in the House as a 'sport,' and there was a chorus of 'hear, hears' when he suggested that the All Blacks were the representatives of the national sport of New Zealand, and that it was a wonderfully clean sport too. He added that it was a sport that developed the manhood of the Dominion."

(The request was granted, the ODT reported, on the condition that members did an extra two hours' work.)

Mr Key this week pointed out that the All Blacks typically come to Parliament for a reception once a year, and hosting the squad naming was at the NZRU's behest, not the other way around.

"The choice of venue was a big error in judgement by the NZRU," writes Radio Sport's Brian Ashby.

"The haters are gonna hate, and using the Beehive as the venue for the squad naming will underline the prejudices many of the non-rugby community will feel towards our national game."

Nehe Milner-Skudder

Hold on...I'm just here for the sport! Photo: PHOTOSPORT

On Radio New Zealand's Facebook page, debate over whether it was appropriate was heated.

"I hardly watch rugby but I think they represent New Zealand quite well. As do our Booker Prize winners," writes one commenter.

"Didn't see them doing it for the netballers or Kiwi League Team either," says another. "In future I expect the PM to host the announcement of the NZ Tiddlywinks Team at Parliament too."

And another commenter has a good grasp on political history: "I wonder how many of today's parliamentarians agreed with (Sir Robert) Muldoon when he said, 'Politics should stay out of sport,' in relation to the 1981 Springbok Tour?"

Over the Tasman, the Wallabies don't get the same treatment. They announced their squad in a hangar at Sydney Airport, albeit a fancy one, surrounded by the livery of their sponsor, Qantas.

Tournament hosts England went the more traditional press-conference-in-front-of-sponsors'-logos route, while the Springboks appeared to have staged a televised poolside concert for their announcement.

But sport this weekend wasn't limited to the All Blacks' announcement.

Without as much fanfare, and not nearly as much coverage, the All Whites announced their squad for upcoming internationals;

Scott Dixon won his fourth Indy Car title; New Zealand crews started competing at the World Rowing Championships in France; and Auckland swimmer, Gabrielle Fa'amausili, successfully defended her backstroke title at the World Junior Championships in Singapore.

Mr Key denied the Beehive event last night was about politicians being able to rub shoulders with the All Blacks, but some of the country's other athletes might appreciate the photo op too.

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