New Zealand Rugby – a little too sweet?

By Richard Bicknell

In New Zealand there is a famous Māori whakataukī (proverb): “Kāore te kūmara e kōrero mō tōna ake reka” 

Translated it means “the kūmara (New Zealand’s indigenous sweet potato) does not brag about its own sweetness”, a dictum to humility and modesty. Its pervasiveness speaks volumes to the New Zealand psyche where humbleness and sportsmanship are considered virtues.  

By demonstrating humility in defeat, New Zealand’s cricket team endeared itself to fans around the world following the 2019 World Cup. Forming a key part of the team ethos, it is regarded as a key factor in the team’s subsequent rise to the Number One World ranking – in the two forms of the game that matter. 

If it works for cricket, it therefore begs the question, why does New Zealand Rugby (NZR) think its sweeter than the rest? The All Blacks as a team made famous the “no dickheads” mantra, or the idea that no individual is better or more important than the team collective, no matter how talented, and yet its governing body appears ignorant to it.  

NZR’s recent handling of its refusal, and then subsequent reversal, to send the All Blacks to Australia to play the remainder of the Rugby Championship has been a master class in how to ruin reputations through poor communication and self-importance. This was reinforced again by the revelation in French media last week of previously undisclosed details in the All Blacks new sponsorship deal with French conglomerate Altrad, which seemingly favours French club rugby. Unsurprisingly, the true nature of the deal and the source of their revelation is causing ripples in New Zealand.    

The All Blacks brand is undoubtedly the greatest in rugby, with its broad appeal spreading well beyond the sport and NZR knows it. This arrogance somehow belies the precious reality of the state of the sport at home and around the world . The perilous state of the game shouldn’t have come as a surprise to NZR, given its current controversial courting of private equity to plug its finances (see here for my previous blog on the matter).

NZR, however, increasingly appears to equate the All Blacks’ iconic status with its own infallibility and treats its domestic and international stakeholders an afterthought. Instead, because of its lack of proactive communications and inability to control the message, NZR simply continues to allow its detractors to paint them as self-centred and arrogant. Those detractors may have a point. 

NZR’s inability to get in front of announcements and the subsequent (and inevitable) cascading waterfall of poor reactive communications is a salient lesson in reputation management. There is no doubt that communicating difficult and controversial news is never an easy, or enjoyable, task. But without adding an authoritative, and ideally authentic, voice to the conversation a void is created for detractors to fill.      

No matter how difficult, or controversial the news, by being proactive, communicating, clearly, concisely, and frequently will lend itself to alleviating reputational pain. Whether or not the message is heard, there is at least a voice and a conversation started, even if one sided.   

Had NZR followed the guidelines of the foundations of communications, it could have minimised the opportunity for its detractors to paint it so negatively. Instead, not only has NZR allowed itself to be portrayed as arrogant, it has, in many ways, demonstrated the point. 

The rights and wrongs of NZR’s relationship with fans and stakeholders will ultimately pass, and actions on the field will always speak louder than words. But for a brand, and a nation, whose identity is framed around strength and humility, it is a poor, and ultimately avoidable, grounding – all for thinking themselves too sweet.