Why the All Blacks need the support of the New Zealand public now
There’s talk of a disconnect between the All Blacks and the public.
Just a tick over 25,000 fans attended Saturday’s 57-22 win over Australia, in the second of two consecutive tests at Eden Park.
Of all the things said and written in the wake of that match, the most interesting came from All Blacks head coach Ian Foster.
While keen to accentuate the positive and commend those who did come and applaud the performance of his team, Foster said the crowd number was ostensibly not his problem.
That’s where Foster is wrong and, partly, why he is ill-suited to the role of All Blacks coach.
Among the many duties Foster has inherited is to become the team’s carnival-barker-in-chief. To be the team’s spruiker and to encourage those outside the All Blacks’ tent to want to come in and take a look.
The private part of the national coach’s job is clearly the most important. The hours in the dressing sheds, on the training paddock, in selection meetings and team rooms ultimately decide your coaching fate.
But there’s a public role too – one not dissimilar to that of a political leader – in which you need to win the hearts and minds of the public.
Steve Hansen was always charismatic. Among people he trusted and rated, Hansen was a popular figure.
But it’s fair to say that in his days as All Blacks assistant coach, he didn’t care greatly for the media and public. He neither trusted nor rated them and his public utterances provided ample examples of that.
But, partly with the help of media trainer Ian Fraser, Hansen softened. He became less quick to take offence or to be suspicious of outsiders and quickly won fans and journalists over.
If it’s true that supporters aren’t so attached to this All Blacks team, then that starts with Foster. And, far from Saturday’s turn out not being his problem, it absolutely is.
For as long as he dismisses the relevance of those outside the team bubble, the players themselves will follow that lead.
The connection between the fans and the team is important right now.
There’s every indication that Saturday’s game was the last we’ll see of the All Blacks this year and that the remainder of their test schedule will be played overseas. Starting in Australia, on August 28 and then onto the United States and Europe.
At this stage, every fit All Black is said to be available for that elongated tour and the various quarantining periods that it will demand.
But what if a player decides three months away from his family is too many? What if a player gets away and finds it too tough on him and the family he’s left behind?
Will the public begrudge him sitting the trip out or returning home before it’s finished? Or will he be labelled a snowflake, who’s paid handsomely to play rugby and simply needs to get on with it?
These are unique times for modern athletes. It’s not often they’ve had to pursue their careers to the exclusion of everything else.
Far from being the frolics that previous overseas trips have occasionally been, touring life has changed markedly since the onset of Covid-19.
I’d like to think the public would be sympathetic to the players. That they’d realise the sacrifice these men are making and not judge them harshly if they find being on the road too much.
Increasingly we are seeing that athletes can be vulnerable to mental health problems. That the pressures of high-performance sport are harder to absorb without the usual balance that family or freedom can provide.
When your world shrinks to hotel room, team room, bus, training venue, dressing room and playing field, it’s easy to feel as if the walls are closing in.
There’s lots of reasons why there needs to be a rapport between the All Blacks and the public, with gate receipts just one of them.
When you cease to be relatable or touchable or even admirable, then it’s easy for fans to turn away from you. Worse still is when those fans suddenly decide to turn on you.
Ian Foster needs to sell the idea that he’s just one of us. That he’s an ordinary bloke who doesn’t always have the answers and is just battling away like we are.
Rather than be irritated by or suspicious of us, he needs us to feel like he’s a relatable and likeable guy.
If he’s slightly more vulnerable and approachable, then the players are more likely to adopt that stance too.
As a team – and individuals – the All Blacks really need our support right now. And, for the first time in a long time, it appears as if they’re going to have to earn it.
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