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Scotty Stevenson: 'Access to players has been weaponized'

By Ned Lester
Beauden Barrett issues instructions for the All Blacks. Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images

Kiwi rugby pundit Scotty Stevenson has taken aim at New Zealand Rugby’s depersonalisation of male players and urged them to learn from the success of the 2021 Rugby World Cup to improve fans’ engagement with the sport.

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Stevenson has been a rugby commentator and pundit for nearly 20 years and was part of the broadcasting panel that covered every match of last month’s World Cup.

He delivered an impassioned protest to the commercialisation of rugby in New Zealand and all of its seeping implications as he appeared on The Rugby Pod last week.

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“I think that access to players has been weaponized by media managers,” Stevenson said. “And I think that is a terrible, terrible place to find yourself. It shows a lack of maturity, it shows a bone-deep concern for image.

“The flip side of that is by showing yourself  – and again I go back to the women’s World Cup, which I was at all 26 games, and every single one of those games had a human story that was compelling for the fans, compelling! And they were open.

“Ruby Tui is one out of the box, right? But the class of Sarah Hunter, and the class of Ward through the pain, and the class of Amy Cokayne, and all the others who were there, who could bare their souls, and show their emotion and feel like they were in a safe space and one of the things, just adding to the issues around the men’s game; those crowds are the greatest, most friendliest, most spirited crowds I have been in for an international rugby game in my life.

“There was no focus on boos, there weren’t middle-aged men in face paint with that low-level menace that a lot of the fans of the game and the expectant fans of the men’s game have, everyone turned up on mass because they saw something in those women’s stories that they could associate with, that they could connect with.

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“Going back to the original point, we’ve become so gun shy about our male players showing anything nearing themselves because that might damage the jersey you wear on Saturdays.

“We’ve got to get away from that.”

The number of male New Zealanders playing rugby is declining and many pundits, including All Blacks great Sir John Kirwin, have pointed to the emphasis on professionalisation as a major culprit; making the sport a fruitless activity for any young player who doesn’t look to have an immediate avenue to a professional contract.

“We’ve put a lot of energy into the top end, into the shop window,” Stevenson continued.

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“Unfortunately we’ve got a grassroots game that’s battling, we’ve got a schools game that’s become super concentrated on just a few top schools and there is a superheated market around there – I believe an over-professionalisation of the schoolboy game.

“The enjoyment has gone away for a lot of kids who want to be involved in rugby because if you haven’t made the first XV at one of these schools now, then you feel like the game’s dead to you.

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Stevenson questioned NZR’s vision for the game and warned the governing body not to follow in the footsteps of the likes of FIFA and prioritise the money, stating “this level of corporate capriciousness is not reflective of what rugby is.”

Also concerning to Stevenson was the attitude of depersonalisation extending to the fans, as he reminded the podcast’s audience of the place rugby holds in New Zealand’s DNA and shared concern that NZR was treating fans as “nothing but a ticket stub and a jersey buyer.”

“The private equity has been looked at, mulled over by the public, trying to understand ‘well what is this now? Is this just a professional sporting organisation?’ And as you know, a professional sporting organisation is one thing, it’s a property rights business.

“Is that what rugby’s going to be reduced to or can rugby still have a role to play throughout communities, for our children, for our women and right across the spectrum? And that’s where I think New Zealand Rugby is struggling a little bit, it’s moved into a hyper-commercial role, they’ve wanted to be the money of the game, that has seen them change their constitution, move away from the constituent members of New Zealand Rugby, the provincial unions and a lot of the focus now – I think too much focus – on that top end.

“Rugby Union, if it keeps going down this path, I fear it loses so much of its soul.”

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