Rugby is far more than a game to New Zealanders.
From the All Blacks, through to club and school teams, the game genuinely brings communities together. It’s not just about the fun and fellowship, but self-esteem too.
Rugby, and in particular the All Blacks, makes people feel good about themselves. It helps them feel as if New Zealand matters and that people across the globe know who we are and where we are.
We might only be small, and rather out of the way, but we sure are good at rugby.
Rugby’s often good for us too. In recent years New Zealand Rugby (NZR) has done fine work in the areas of mental health and inclusivity; they’ve raised the profile of female players and promoted worthy causes such as the proper pronunciation of people’s names and awareness of concussion.
So they should, obviously. With privilege comes responsibility and nothing holds a more exalted position in New Zealand than rugby.
Again, in many instances, the game is a force for good and we are a better, more tolerant society for it. But NZR and the Crusaders failed a few people last Friday.
Given an opportunity to lead and to live up to the ideals many of us hold, they chose to settle for convention. To give the illusion that they cared about the death of 51 innocent Cantabrians, when all they were actually doing was looking after their name.
March 15 this year was one of the sadder days in New Zealand history. People, many of whom weren’t born here but chose this as a safe haven, were slaughtered while going about their daily business.
Without wanting to get too melodramatic about it, there’s New Zealand before those March 15 mosque shootings and then there’s New Zealand after it. Rightly or wrongly, we always told ourselves those were acts that occurred elsewhere, but not here.
No, we’re much too accepting of difference for that.
This is where rugby had a chance to play its part. To make a stand and to educate others.
Instead, the Crusaders, and NZR, were blinded by a brand.
People might be dead, but we won’t sacrifice the Crusaders’ name under any circumstances, no matter how upsetting or extraordinary.
And so we had last week’s unedifying spectacle, during which Crusaders chief executive Colin Mansbridge insisted the franchise’s name had many, many meanings; just not the one it’s always been associated with.
Sword-wielding knights on horseback has always been the Crusaders’ schtick. Long before Scott Robertson was break dancing, title-winning Crusaders coaches plunged a sword into the playing surface to signify their conquest.
Mansbridge maintained that all the franchise had ever crusaded for was tolerance and a fair go for all, but we all know he’s drawing a long bow there.
Instead of justifying a name made distasteful by March’s events, Mansbridge and company might have really gone and done something to promote tolerance in Christchurch and beyond. Sadly, the best he could do was make a bizarre comparison between the franchise’s “crusade” for social justice and that of suffragette Kate Sheppard.
If rugby weren’t a big deal in this country, then maybe little of this would matter. But it’s not. It’s the biggest deal going and people are entitled to expect the game to often do things for the greater good.
Changing the name of the Crusaders would have sent an undeniable message that rugby takes its status seriously, that it’s conscious of the ways in which the game matters to New Zealanders and is willing to make difficult decisions for all of our benefit.
NZR and the Crusaders couldn’t, this time, and it’ll be fascinating to see how many people come to hold that against them.
Ardie Savea is out for six months:
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