Thursday 15 November 2018

The All Blacks' nakedly corporate strategy keeps the money rolling in as worldwide tour hits Europe

New Zealand's All Blacks perform a haka (PA)
New Zealand's All Blacks perform a haka (PA)

Oliver Brown

By degrees, the All Blacks are morphing into rugby’s answer to the Rolling Stones: a polished touring juggernaut whose every performance feels, for those in attendance, like a once-in-a-lifetime treat, but whose modus operandi are ever more nakedly corporate.

There is a reason, for example, why Mick Jagger is not just the Stones front man but their self-styled CEO, ensuring that the band’s lips-and-tongue logo becomes ubiquitous enough to be printed on limited-edition Paris St Germain jerseys. After 50 years of refining the perfect setlist, they are a brand made for monetising.

Similarly, the All Blacks, after decades of pulverising every opponent put in front of them, can consort with multinationals to their hearts’ content. This year, for example, a partnership with Apple ensures that fans can download a selection of the New Zealand team’s curated playlists, from "pre-game pump-up" to "post-match wind-down".

With each foray into the northern hemisphere, their emphasis on milking brand value becomes more marked. In 2016, the All Blacks dropped anchor in Chicago, as part of a ruse by their shirt sponsors, insurance giant American International Group, to grow their US profile. It is a moot point as to how much they succeeded, given that a report in The Chicago Sun-Times on their 67-3 thrashing of the USA Eagles referred to them as a "legendary Aussie team". This year, they have made it their priority to conquer the Asian market, battling with Japan in Tokyo and even shifting the season’s third Bledisloe Cup match to Yokohama.

If there is one word that has distilled the essence of the All Blacks on their visits to these shores, it is mystique. Behind that black jersey, emblem of a small and distant nation, lies a feat of alchemy that no other sports operation can fully define, let alone replicate. But how much longer can such mystique be sustained in this hyper-commercial age? Even the haka seems, increasingly, like a commodity to be co-opted, with Jurgen Klopp staging his version of the war dance aboard the team bus while manager of Mainz.

And while we might think of the now-retired Richie McCaw as being above anything so vulgar as social media – "I’d as soon eat my own entrails as tweet," he said – this has not stopped some dubious family forays on Instagram. In July, his wife Gemma, a former hockey international, announced the impending birth of the couple’s first child with a picture of three pairs of shoes: his and hers trainers, plus a pair for the baby, and all of them prominently displaying the name of Richie’s sponsor, Adidas.

For Zinzan Brooke, the extraordinary No 8 who lit up the game in the Nineties, before the All Blacks became a transcendent global phenomenon, the team’s more corporate image does not represent any cause for alarm. "You will only over-commercialise when the All Blacks stop winning," he says. "That’s the nuts and bolts. You still have to execute and have a ‘W’ at the end of the game. It’s as simple as that. Rugby, we have to remember, is not the only sport. Perhaps we do need to be a bit more savvy, a bit more commercially-minded. Ultimately, kids want to look up to their heroes. The players in New Zealand know what they have to do to keep their position, preserve their reputation, and uphold the name of a small country of four million people at the bottom of the world."

In his view, we should forget any idea, however tempting, that the All Blacks have sold out. "Every New Zealander is a small part of the black jersey that 23 men wear on Test day," Brooke argues. "It’s a great honour, because of the team’s phenomenal recent history. You might think they’re superhuman, but they’re just normal blokes, united by a pride and passion never to let the jersey down."

Such emotions could hardly be more acute than on Saturday, for a match four years in the making. And yet the New Zealand of 2018 is a very different vintage to the one Twickenham last glimpsed in 2014. There is no McCaw, no Dan Carter, and there is a faint suspicion – stirred by an almost unthinkable home defeat to South Africa in Wellington – that they are not quite what they were. Even for a team as adept as the All Blacks at reproducing dominance over long periods, a changing of the guard can be complex.

"It creates problems," Ian Foster, the assistant coach acknowledged yesterday. "We don’t like losing established players. It certainly hurts us. But what it does do is forces us into a mode of combining development and high performance.

"We’re always conscious that, when we go out on the park, we have to win. But we’re also aware that we have to keep developing the team at the same time. It means we probably tend to take a few more risks from that perspective. We like to make sure that we’re growing people at a rate where, should we lose someone, we have someone who has at least been exposed to the pressure of Test rugby. We worry when we lose players, but it’s an opportunity for someone else. Having confidence in the new players is half the battle."

And in Beauden Barrett, the successor to Carter and a two-time world player of the year at 27, such confidence is well-placed. The All Blacks might have a shinier public façade these days, but when it comes to excellence, they are as much a self-sustaining organism as ever.

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