5 Aug 2016

If it’s a rugby problem, it’s everybody’s problem

3:25 pm on 5 August 2016

The Chiefs fiasco reminds us that rugby culture often reflects our country's ugliest attitudes.


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Photo: PhotoSport

Rugby runs through the veins of this country, and has done since the sport was first introduced in the 1870s. That’s because rugby, in and of itself, is good for us: it unifies the country, lifts our collective spirits, and fuels national pride.

Rugby culture, on the other hand, is frequently the total opposite. In a word, toxic.

Before you say it, we will: not all players, coaches and supporters are guilty of ugly behaviour. Many, including the All Blacks, are working to make rugby a more inclusive sport and, importantly, an inclusive culture.

But the fact remains; rugby culture in New Zealand often spews out textbook examples of racism, sexism and homophobia.

The crazy thing about ‘–isms’ is, if you don’t believe they’re wrong, you’re probably not going to recognise when they’re happening. Even worse, these issues often get treated like HPV: you don’t want it there, but you resign yourself to the fact it probably is, so you try not to talk or think about it too much.

If you’re sitting there reading this and thinking, ‘These guys don’t know what they’re talking about,’ let us enlighten you.


Earlier this week, a stripper named Scarlette spoke out about her experience at a Chiefs post-season celebration, where she said she was sworn at, touched without consent, and had gravel thrown at her. She told RNZ that she “made it very clear” that she did not want to be touched.

“They wanted me to be a whore, which I wasn't there to be.”

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Photo: Photosport

There are better and worse ways to deal with a situation like this and, apparently, Chiefs CEO Andrew Flexman decided to go with the worst possible option. "You have got to remember this is one person's accusation and her standing in the community and culpability is not beyond reproach,” he said.

Flexman has since apologised, but in another blow that dragged us all back a few centuries,  Margaret Comer from Gallagher Group, a major Chiefs sponsor, offered this gem: "If a woman takes her clothes off and walks around in a group of men, what are we supposed to do if one of them tries to touch her."

“It's not nice and perhaps the stripper shouldn't have been hired, but I'm reluctant to say that the boys were out of line," she said.

Comer, who is also a trustee on the board of Waikato Women's Refuge, has since apologised.


In another embarrassing blow to the Chiefs at the very same celebration, player Michael Allardice made homophobic comments at the Okoroire hot springs.

A man who was visiting the pools with his partner says Allardice shouted: "Here come the gays" and other sexually explicit comments. Allardice said they were not directed at Mr Barraclough but as a jest to a teammate. He apologised for offence caused and that seemed to be the end of that.

Chiefs player Michael Allardice apologised for shouting 'here come the gays'

Chiefs player Michael Allardice apologised for shouting 'here come the gays' Photo: PhotoSport

Last year, the first international study on homophobia in sport produced damning findings for New Zealand. Amongst other things, the Out on the Fields study found:

• Gay men in New Zealand, tied with Australia, were the most likely to say they remained in the closet in youth sport because they were worried about discrimination from coaches and officials.

• New Zealand ranked second for the number of gay men who stopped playing team sports when they became adults.


Rugby is a full-contact sport but when that violence extends past impressive tackles and collisions on field, we have a problem.

Julian Savea featured in the "It's Not OK!" campaign against family violence

Julian Savea featured in the "It's Not OK!" campaign against family violence Photo: Unknown

In 2013, Hurricanes and All Blacks winger Julian Savea was charged with assaulting his partner. But just days after being formally charged, Savea – who has featured in the "It's Not OK!" campaign against family violence – was given permission to play for the Hurricanes.  

All Black coach Steve Hansen also said he will continue to play Savea. "It's a lot for a young person, even an older person, to be able to handle," Hansen said. "It's an unfortunate incident. It's not one that he's proud of or any of us are.”

Women’s Refuge released a statement saying it was disappointed the New Zealand Rugby Union allowed Julian Savea to play. “When an All Black has been charged with a domestic violence offence, I would have thought the All Black ‘brand’ would want to act decisively to distance itself from such an action,” said Refuge chief executive Heather Henare.

The charge against Savea was later withdrawn after he completed diversion

Then there’s the famous case of former All Black winger Zac Guildford staggering naked, drunk and bleeding into a beachside Rarotonga bar and punching two men. He later apologised, but "troubled" is tag that seems to have stuck with him.


Last month, the story of Fijian rugby player Sake Aca made headlines after he left the field in tears because of racist taunts during a Canterbury club rugby final. Another Fijian rugby player, Peni Manumanuniliwa, was racially taunted during a rugby match in Christchurch.

He said he was frequently the target of racial hatred on the field and prayed before every game that he would not be abused, openly admitting he has cried after being called a "n....." and a "black c..."

Racism is showing up in young demographics too. Two racial abuse complaints were made against Christ's College U14 rugby team this year. And it’s not just the players: Canterbury rugby teams complained about racially abuse by spectators.

But according to Canterbury Rugby Union community rugby general manager, Tim Gilkison, Canterbury Rugby doesn’t have a racism problem. There was greater awareness and it was being brought to their attention more often, he said.

Really though?

Really though? Photo: Unknown

In 2012, Auckland Blues coach Pat Lam said there was a racial motivation to some of the criticism he and his team received after a poor season start. "We totally accept the criticism that we get when we don't perform," Lam said. "But it's the racist people … the social media and talkback where people say things that are pretty offensive"


Last month, a Canterbury club rugby player was banned from all rugby for 45 weeks for verbally and physically abusing a referee. We all know abuse of referees isn’t an isolated incident; two Wellington rugby coaches were suspended for referee abuse in July and in a bid to tackle the issue, Wellington rugby Football Union (WRFU) recently launched a campaign with Hurricanes player Victor Vito disguised as a referee.

rugby is a metaphor. It can be used to define and describe the good and the bad of New Zealand society...

Unfortunately, the WRFU screwed up the campaign by using actors to play the abusive sideline watchers, undermining the cause and opening up a can of  ‘See! It’s not really a problem!’ by way of comments online.

These issues are not just a rugby problem; they’re problems for New Zealand as a whole. But when it happens in the context of rugby, our national sport and pride, there’s a bigger spotlight on them.

As Kiwi author Finlay McDonald eloquently put it: “Love it or hate it, rugby is a metaphor. It can be used to define and describe the good and the bad of New Zealand society... Maybe it's a truism to say that a country's national game is a clue to its national soul, but there can be few better clues.”

If McDonald is right, then our soul is not the most saintly one around, and rugby is a good place to start cleaning it up.