4 Apr 2021

Super Rugby Aotearoa: One great game and a bunch of trash

8:40 am on 4 April 2021

Opinion: Our national game didn't do itself any favours last week, that's for sure. In what was a wild few days, story after story broke, knocking each other out of the news cycle on a better than daily basis.

Billy Harmon of the Highlanders and Hugh Renton of the Highlanders celebrates winning the Super Rugby Aotearoa rugby match, Crusaders V Highlanders, at Orangetheory Stadium, Christchurch, New Zealand, 2nd April 2021.

Highlanders Billy Harmon, left, and Hugh Renton celebrate a well-deserved win over the Crusaders at Orangetheory Stadium in Christchurch on Friday night. Photo: © Photosport Ltd 2021

Very little of it could be described as good, until against all the odds the Highlanders came out and somehow smashed the Crusaders in Christchurch on Friday night.

Before then, the southern men had dropped six of their players for breaking team protocols and then tried to simply put their team sheet out and expected no one to notice.

The Highlanders have a very well earned reputation for being a pack of amateurs when it comes to media relations, so this was the latest chapter in a long history of poor engagement - but even for them, this was exceptionally stupid. Within a day it was discovered what had really happened, with a house in suburban Dunedin being frequently used for parties by the players.

On the surface, it's not a huge deal really, which is why they should have just front footed it and told the truth. It's certainly small fry compared to the ongoing Silver Lake saga, which involves almost half a billion dollars and is set to drag on for at least a couple more weeks as the NZ Rugby Players Association has somehow managed to make NZ Rugby look like the good guys in this.

NZR chief executive Mark Robinson faced the press on Thursday in a somewhat shambolic press conference that was supposed to be about a new sponsor for the National Provincial Championship, giving away little other than a bit of a smirk when the NZRPA's attempts to gain leverage over the situation were mentioned. Then word came through that Sam Cane had been injured and was set to miss six months with injury.

New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson.

NZR chief executive Mark Robinson faced the press on Thursday in a somewhat shambolic press conference. (file pic) Photo: Photosport

On Friday Ardie Savea chimed in on Twitter with his thoughts on the way the Highlanders' party boys had been dealt with in the press, which led to a back and forth battle with the journalists who had written the story.

He is now in the running to be All Black captain due to Cane's absence. If that comes to pass then his relationship with the media will probably need a bit of a reset. Savea is a good guy with good intentions, but what's happened to get to this point is a serious lack of education provided to him by his employers around the role the media plays in promoting the game.

There was a lot to like about the Highlanders' performance later that night, in fact it's impossible to say any of them had a bad game. Ethan de Groot was immense at prop, veteran Bryn Evans was gunning down players over a decade younger than him, Mitch Hunt kicked the lights out and the back three were outstanding. Special mention to Scott Gregory, the young Northland wing who had a very rough introduction to Super Rugby Aotearoa last season when the Blues made it their entire gameplan to force him into making mistakes, but he stood up with the tackle of the season on a flying Ethan Blackadder to deny him what looked to be a certain try.

Connor Garden-Bachop scores the matching-winning try for the Highlanders in the tackle of David Havili.

Connor Garden-Bachop scores the matching-winning try for the Highlanders in the tackle of David Havili. Photo: Photosport

Unfortunately, the joy of the win was overshadowed by former Highlanders player Joe Wheeler doing his best Krusty the Clown impersonation, dropping a clanger of a 'joke' in the post-match interviews.

The public reaction to his gaffe said an awful lot about Sky TV's insistence on hiring former players maybe not being as great a policy as they think, and Wheeler's not-quite-an-apology shows that the state of PR and media comms involved in rugby across the board probably needs a serious lift if the game is going to stay relevant.

Then, after a week in which we got more rugby news than we'd normally have in a season, Super Rugby Aotearoa round five culminated last night at Eden Park with a pretty rubbish game between the Blues and Hurricanes.

Ardie Savea attended the post match press conference, answered a few curly questions about refereeing and gave no opinion on the game the night before between the Highlanders and Crusaders.

Not because he was trying to be difficult, mind you. Savea sheepishly admitted he hadn't even watched it because he was out with friends instead.

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