The All Blacks have only rarely had to cultivate an image of being the team for all New Zealand.
Apart from a period during and post-1981, when they were the team for half of New Zealand, they’ve slotted unchallenged into that role.
Success will do that for you.
Sure, they’re never going to please everyone. There will always be a section of society that has a disdain for organised sport, particularly rugby, and the coverage it receives, but by and large New Zealanders take enormous pride in the fact the All Blacks consistently produce a team better than any other country can muster.
Success of your flagship team is about the best anti-blemish cream on the market, but there is a boil on the back of rugby here that needs lancing: the increasing creep of elitism into the game.
It is at that tingling, barely perceptible stage at the moment, but it threatens to burst to the surface.
It can be seen most obviously in Auckland, where New Zealand Rugby and toothless college sports bodies have allowed to run unchecked the domination of a few schools with chequebooks large enough to take the best players from low-decile schools.
It’s not the fact that these kids are often sold an unrealistic vision of a life of wealth in rugby that rankles most. Most damaging is the perpetuation of the idea that they should be grateful for being given the opportunity to escape less prestigious rugby environments.
One of the stated aims of NZ Rugby according to their latest AGM was to make rugby the game of choice for wider Auckland. By their own admission they have failed, but it is these schools and their born-to-rule old boys’ networks that are actively working against that aim – making it instead the game for narrower Auckland.
This creeping elitism can be also seen in pricing, where we’re asked to accept the idea that tickets to tests will be unaffordable to a large chunk of New Zealanders as if it is the most obvious thing in the world.
Said NZR chief executive Steve Tew to Fairfax a few days ago: “There’s no question when you get to the [Lions 2017] test matches the prices will be familiar to people having had a World Cup and Lions tour in the past. But we’ve got a number of games so there’ll be opportunity certainly for kids to come cheaply to watch the Super clubs.”
Tew has confirmed the fears of many: the All Blacks are only available to those who can pay the most, but never mind, there’s always the Blues!
Anybody who dares suggest that pricing the All Blacks for maximum return is not an ethos that sits well with the idea that they are a team for everyone is dismissed as having lost their “economic realities” faculties.
And maybe they have.
It is tough to keep producing the best team in the world and bloody expensive to provide the framework and infrastructure to enable that to happen, but I don’t believe people are naïve about this.
The rugby public grudgingly accepts that daylight tests are the Hanging Gardens of Babylon – a thing of great beauty and wonder that we’ll never see again. They painstakingly acknowledge that to watch the All Blacks live from the comfort of their couches, they will have to pay the broadcasters a monthly fee (which has just increased, again).
They might cringe when the front of the shirt – “it’s not a jersey, it’s a portal through which men pass” – is sold to an American insurer, just one more piece of crass commercialism that was captured inventively here by The Spinoff’s Calum Henderson, but understood it to be inevitable.
They have long accepted that the All Blacks’ mystique is available to the highest bidder, but they will surely baulk at the idea that All Blacks tests have become the domain of the corporate elite. “The team of the boardroom” does not quite have the same ring to it.
NZ Rugby is in the midst of a gilded age. The All Blacks are back-to-back world champions. They are led by a popular coach and are sprinkled with a seemingly neverending supply of stardust.
They can host a side that has played seven tests in New Zealand and lost all seven by a combined score of 284-46 and put the “Full House” signs out. They can point at those signs and say the market has spoken.
Eden Park is not sold out because they’re seduced by the allure of Wales, or the night-time time elements, or the extortionately priced food and beverage; they’re coming because the All Blacks are the hottest ticket in town.
And NZ Rugby are milking that for all its worth. They just need to remember, from time to time, that the bedrock of the sport here and what separates it from most of the other rugby playing nations is its egalitarian appeal. The All Blacks need to remain the face of that appeal.
Lose that and only time will tell what else you might lose in the process.