'Just make it about rugby': Why there continues to be a disconnect between players and fans
Following a tough start to the year, the All Blacks have faced plenty of criticism from pundits and fans alike.
New captain Sam Cane revealed last week that his teammates aren’t hugely fazed by the comments coming from outside their inner circle while halfback TJ Perenara has taken a slightly different approach, posting on social media that fans who are unwilling to stick with the All Blacks during tough times also shouldn’t bother supporting them when they’re doing well.
With social media such an ever-present part of modern society, it’s almost impossible for players to avoid criticism altogether. While that criticism isn’t always unfounded, there are times where it strays away from rugby commentary and becomes more personal in its nature.
Speaking on this week’s episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod, Super Rugby players Bryn Hall and James Parsons revealed they’ve faced their fair share of criticism and that it’s ostensibly become an inevitable part of life as a professional athlete.
“It’s part and parcel of us as rugby players,” said four-time Super Rugby champion Hall. “If we’re winning and that kind of stuff, you’re going to be getting the positive praise.”
“We’ve both been in teams that have gone through really challenging times,” acknowledged former All Black Parsons. “At the end of the day, if you get some results, the pressure will ease.
“There’s room for negative feedback. I suppose it’s the tone, and as long as it’s not personal, and it’s about errors you made as a rugby player and from a place of knowledge, then you can’t argue with it.
“Rugby players are really good at receiving feedback because our whole life is week-to-week and we get feedback every day. We finish Monday and we’ll get feedback clips that night … It’s not about the feedback, it’s just when it turns personal. We understand that the fans are going to get frustrated if we don’t perform but just make it about rugby.”
Both players agreed that one of the problems facing the game is that fans aren’t always able to criticise constructively because they don’t necessarily have as deep a rugby education as they’d like to believe.
Cane’s comments on The Breakdown last week reflected a similar sentiment, with the All Blacks captain suggesting that his side take no notice of some of the team’s more “brutal” fans.
“We’ve got some amazing fans but we’ve also got some pretty brutal ones,” he said. “With that you’ve just got to remind yourself hey, they may like to think they know a lot about the game of rugby, in reality they don’t really. They may know the game from what they see in the 80 minutes, but they don’t see the stuff that goes on behind the scenes.”
View this post on Instagram
Parsons has regularly featured on New Zealand radio shows to try and better educate the wider public about professional rugby and provide some insight on what many might not pick up simply from tuning into the sport every weekend.
“My main motivation was I could either complain that [the public] don’t know [about rugby], or I become part of the solution – and that’s what I did,” he said. “I’ve done that and we’ve had callers and I’ve tried to educate them as best I can.
“I’ve had some great callers of late just trying to explain the contestable kick and why we just ‘give the ball back’, and letting them understand that it’s about saving energy and putting skillsets under pressure but also not playing too much rugby between the two 40 [metre lines]. And they leave going ‘Oh ok, I can see that now.’
“It was also frustrating from a player’s point of view due to you getting a lot of criticism and there wasn’t that understanding, hence the reason that I said I wanted to be part of the solution rather than just sitting back and complaining. It’s something that I’ve really enjoyed, connecting with the fans, and I think I get better feedback from my radio and podcasts than I do as a player.”
Speaking on the differing responses from Cane and Perenara – with Cane’s appearing on more traditional media while Perenara took to his own personal social account – both Hall and Parsons acknowledged that social media can be both a blessing a curse.
“Everyone’s still learning and understanding [how to best utilise social media],” Parsons said. “I think Ardie [Savea] touched on it, the importance of the mental side of the game and dealing with these pressures and having conversations to learn how to deal with it and be better from it.
“There’s certainly a place for a player’s point of view, putting things out there but also letting stuff in. You want to have that connection with fans. That’s how you grow your game and you grow the relationship for fans with the club, the jersey but with you as an individual. I think we’ll get better with it over time but there’s definitely growth from all areas.”
“I think that’s where rugby’s going,” said Hall. “Think about athletes being able to talk about how they feel and everything like that … With TJ’s personality, it’s not a bad thing. It’s just his personality. Obviously, I think the messaging as a team won’t be like that but individuals … you’re allowed to have an opinion.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 24, 2020
Parsons, meanwhile, praised coach Ian Foster’s comments following Cane’s appearance on The Breakdown.
“They’re taking their stances as individuals but as a team … your mindset will filter from the top down
“I’ll just use what Fozzie came out and said on Newstalk ZB. He said ‘It’s just part of the process. We love our fans, we understand that there’s going to be negative feedback’. He appreciates the negative feedback, he wants us to be passionate fans, he wants us to be talking about the game, and he said ‘It’s just on us to have a better understanding that it’s part of the process’.
“As the leader of the All Blacks, he just knocked it on the head for me. I just think we move forward through it, there’s individuals and how they motivate themselves to get the performance and at the end of the day, whatever happens and whatever’s said, you’re going to be judged by your performance.”
The All Blacks can improve their win-record for the season to 50 percent if they can beat the Pumas in Sydney this weekend in their final match of the year. A victory would also put them in pole position to take out the Tri-Nations.
Listen to this week’s episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod below:
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now