24 Apr 2018

NZ Rugby's emphatic diversity declaration

12:53 pm on 24 April 2018

Opinion: A new 'Diversity is Strength' ad is part of NZ Rugby's long-term strategic goals, but also comes at the perfect time, as the sport deals with Israel Folau's comments, writes Jamie Wall.

A screenshot from the new Diversity Is Strength ad.

A screenshot from the new Diversity Is Strength ad. Photo: Supplied

In rugby, like in a lot of things, timing is everything. A perfect pass to a player hitting the line, or a perfect tackle on an opponent that's just received the ball.

Or, in the case of NZ Rugby last night, the perfect time to make it clear which side of an argument you're on:

The AIG-sponsored 'Diversity is Strength' ad was filmed last year, and it's entirely possible it wasn't originally scheduled to run until the test season started in June. It shows the All Blacks and Black Ferns wearing a rainbow infused playing jersey, while the narrator makes a diatribe about 'knocking down barriers', 'fighting as one' and the usual sort of stuff that accompanies slow motion shots of sports players and classical music.

As far as aesthetics go, it's pretty unoriginal. The director has clearly taken their cues from any number of NFL Films productions, Nike promos or cheesy sports movies to get the desired effect.

There's a weird moment as a Japanese crowd rises passionately to presumably sing 'God Defend NZ', and one of the All Blacks is wearing number 0 for some reason. There's the slight issue of including the Black Ferns in the ad, because if they were all really in it together then the women should probably be getting paid the same.

But the message is clear: NZ Rugby wants to be about as far away as it possibly can from the mess that Rugby Australia now finds itself in thanks to Israel Folau. Now all those people banging on about respecting beliefs and freedom of speech should be able to see what this is really about: the image of an organisation and what the people writing the cheques want.

This isn't to say that NZ Rugby doesn't really believe in diversity or inclusion. The more people inspired to play rugby, the better - but this is a very clever and obvious move to cash in on the current feeling towards Folau's statements. It's not a bad thing at all, they'll reap the benefits of being the progressive team that promotes the socially acceptable view.

Of course, this wave started last week when All Black halfbacks Brad Weber and TJ Perenara came out swinging on social media. Both made their feelings known about their disagreement with Folau's views, but it was no slightly-ambiguous subtweet or disclaimer about beliefs.

Weber used the word 'disgust' while Perenara rammed home his message by providing a link to a gender minorities support page (also worth mentioning former Wallaby halfback Nic White also chimed in with a message of support, which is notable because he's the only Australian player to say anything on the issue so far).

It earned the admiration of many, to say nothing of surprise. Just last week I wrote a column that concluded by saying that it's unlikely that NZ Rugby would have to deal with a situation like Folau, because the All Blacks aren't exactly known for saying anything interesting at all.

But it's fitting then that a couple of yappy halfbacks broke that mould and may have ushered in the early release of the Diversity is Strength campaign. It said a lot that Steve Hansen felt comfortable enough to wholeheartedly endorse Perenara at the first All Black press conference of the year.

But the campaign would've gone ahead regardless of whether Folau had said what he said, anyway. Which is a clear sign that NZ Rugby has had this as a strategic goal for a while now, and have recognised the need to move with the times. If anything, they're probably secretly thanking Folau for providing a much more favourable climate for them.

So there it is, one of the biggest bastions of New Zealand conservatism just walked out the gate and took a side. Like all companies that publicly and officially embrace diversity, there's no going back now.

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