Opinion: Rugby brand takes another hit

3:36 pm on 1 June 2019

The Crusaders seem to have successfully dodged a bullet. At least for the time being.

Fans during Super Rugby match Crusaders v Brumbies, at Christchurch Stadium.

Photo: Photosport

Reports - be they sketchy, scandalous or otherwise - of rugby stars playing up after dark, always generate big headlines.

Whatever the Crusaders did or didn't do in Cape Town's late night district, following their 19 May draw with the Stormers, is still to be determined.

In getting out in front of the story, naming names, releasing some details and promising a full and frank report, the Crusaders slowed the story's momentum and bought themselves time.

It's now, nearly a fortnight on, as if the whole thing never happened.

What that doesn't mean, though, is that rugby has got away scot free.

It can be hard for those within the rugby bubble to see what everyone else does.

Rugby folk love the game. They see and know the many good deeds that players do.

They know how the game can galvanise communities and how national initiatives around pronunciation, mental health and player safety are doing some genuine good.

When the game dominates back pages and fills news bulletins or talkback shows, rugby folk feel that's justified. This is, after all, the game for all New Zealand.

Only it's not.

Great swathes of our society loathe rugby. They resent its prominence and exalted status and look forward to the day when the game takes a giant fall.

Some of those people have prominent and influential media roles and, while appreciating the traffic that rugby coverage brings them, welcome the chance incidents such as the Cape Town one provide.

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These episodes show players in a poor light and are often used to denigrate rugby as a whole.

It's hard to quantify the damage those types of headlines and stories do, particularly given how fearful many parents are of the physical harm rugby can cause.

Concussion is a very real concern to people and children are steered away from contact sports as a consequence.

Let's take the rugby club in the town where I live. It's a pretty successful one, winning the local competition two seasons ago and being finalists last year. But it boasts just one adult side.

Numbers are scant at junior level and the club has not been able to field a team in all grades.

Sides play on Saturdays with few, if any, reserves. The kids love it; they're just very hard to find.

Is that the fault of George Bridge or Richie Mo'unga, the two Crusaders named in conjunction with events in Cape Town? The honest answer is kind of.

Crusaders first five Richie Mo'unga and winger George Bridge.

Crusaders' first five Richie Mo'unga and wing George Bridge were accused of inappropriate behaviour in Cape Town two weeks ago. Photo: Photosport

You can't ask professional athletes to think of the children, once their team's been given a Saturday night leave pass. But their employers, and the team management who say a few beers are allowed tonight, need to.

Rugby is a force for good so much of the time. But the game lets itself down at others, by taking its status for granted.

On this occasion the Crusaders have successfully shut the story down. Maybe the next Super Rugby or provincial side won't be so able or lucky. Heaven help us if a few All Blacks are filmed or seen looking a bit worse for wear this year.

Perception is reality and every time a story breaks which infers or alleges that rugby players are insensitive and entitled and maybe even a little barbaric, then attitudes harden against the game.

The result, at least in one small New Zealand town, can be felt in how few parents want their children to play rugby anymore.