The first draft of a bad novel might start something like this: In late October, as the winds from the west brought with them drizzle and pollen, an eerie quiet befell the dominion of New Zealand.
Except this is stranger than fiction. It’s real life. And it was not meant to be this way.
Early exits from the World Cup – for the All Blacks any departure before the final is an early exit – are supposed to be met with an intense period of noise and mourning.
But there’s a ghost in the machine. The once-delicate national rugby psyche has fended off denial, rolled right over the top of anger and bargaining, sidestepped depression and dotted down at acceptance.
For those of us who have lived through the aftermath of ’99, ’03 and ’07, it feels like we’re missing something; mostly the anger. The public autopsies of those failed campaigns unveiled an ugliness at the heart of our passion for the game.
In those days the talkback lines crackled with the static of a thousand waiting callers.
Commentators, pundits and columnists delivered sermons written with sharpened pens.
In an extraordinary outburst of vitriol, 1999 coach John Hart was spat on and his horse had cans of beer thrown at it when he attended the New Zealand trotting cup in Christchurch shortly after his team had been punted by France in that famous Twickenham semifinal.
“The horse didn’t know what he’d done wrong … It wasn’t a great day in my life,” Hart would say from the safety of 14 years later.
In 2019, we deliver instead a collective shrug of the shoulders, a pat on the back for England and an “Oh well”. There have been no obvious scapegoats, a la Hart in 1999; John Mitchell and George Gregan’s “four more years” in 2003; and the two-headed hydra of coach Graham Henry and referee Wayne Barnes in ’07.
No horses were harmed in the making of this failed campaign (although a Union Jack-adorned Mini had three windows broken in an unprovoked attack in leafy Devonport).
Have we grown up a bit? Have our hardened souls been softened by success?
That would be a generous assessment, though not necessarily inaccurate. It would mean that we’ve gone from a toddler throwing toys out of the cot to adult in the blink of an eye.
It’s the best way of looking at it, however. The other option is unpalatable: we no longer care.
Marilyn Giroux is a senior lecturer specialising in sports marketing at AUT.
She is also Canadian, though has been living in New Zealand for four years.
Giroux has noticed when it comes to discussing sport and in particular the All Blacks with her students, they are far less intense and invested here than they were in Canada when discussing local NHL team the Montreal Canadiens.
It’s a small anecdote in a broad topic but it speaks to a large truth when discussing why New Zealanders are taking this defeat so well.
“Less interest equals less expectation,” Giroux says.
A classroom of future marketers is far from definitive, but Giroux says this equation has been evident at this World Cup, moreso than past tournaments.
This assessment is backed up by a self-selecting survey carried out by Auckland University sports sociologist Toni Bruce. The survey found that it only “personally mattered” to 30 per cent of respondents whether the All Blacks won, down from more than half in 2011 when New Zealand hosted the World Cup and was in the midst of a 24-year title drought.
What was consistent, Bruce noted, was that those who didn’t care just assumed far more New Zealanders did than was actually the case.
So if it’s true that it’s no longer as important, the next question is why?
Giroux points to several factors, including the “Red Sox effect”, the fact it was a “clean” loss and, more worryingly for sponsors and administrators, broadcast issues and “a general lack of interest”.
The first two points are easily explained.
The Red Sox effect refers to Boston’s once-maligned baseball team, a storied franchise in a big baseball market which hadn’t won a World Series in 86 years and felt the weight of expectation (and mockery of rivals) increasing with each lost year.
In 2004 the Sox lifted the curse, and have won three times since.
“Their fans would get so upset every year,” Giroux says, “but after 2004 there has been less stress and less desire to prove to the world that we’re good at baseball.”
The parallels with the All Blacks’ seemingly doomed quest for a second world title are obvious. With three titles under the belt now, New Zealand sports fans no longer feel the need for validation that comes with a World Cup.
The clean loss refers to the fact the All Blacks were outplayed by a clearly better side on the day. There was no refereeing controversy, no raging sense of injustice that sparked outrage like it did 12 years ago in Cardiff.
The broadcasting and general lack of interest Giroux mentions require a little more unpacking because they are inextricably linked.
“The TV aspect was really important,” she says.
The rights to the World Cup were bought by telecommunications giant Spark, which streamed all 48 matches to subscribers who bought World Cup packages over its Spark Sport app. It was not a universally popular move as most rugby fans were already subscribers of cable operator Sky Sport.
Early streaming issues during the All Blacks’ crucial opening pool match with South Africa almost certainly persuaded many casual supporters to keep their money in their wallets and just take what they could get on free-to-air TV.
Giroux thought it likely that only the “hardcore” rugby fans bought the entire package.
“People were less invested in this World Cup than in the past,” she said. “Not every New Zealander had access to all the games.”
In this case Giroux is right; in a wider context it might be that it was just a reflection of a troubling trend.
People are increasingly finding it easier to switch off sport.
Since the last World Cup in 2015, Sky, which has held the rights to New Zealand rugby content since 1996, has lost subscribers at a precipitous rate, from a high of 860,000 in 2015 to something a little north of 700,000 today.
The fewer eyeballs there are on rugby, the less interest there is and, more crucially, less ability to attract new fans. When Giroux talked about a generation of students who appeared less invested in sport, she was also talking about a generation that has looked elsewhere for entertainment.
Research commissioned in 2016 by New Zealand Cricket by sport and entertainment group Gemba confirmed that metrics measuring passion, participation and consumption in sport had all trended down this decade.
At the same time, the passion for “entertainment” has increased. Passion for sport was much higher in the over-45 age group than it was in younger groups.
It’s longhand for a blunt fact: millennials are abandoning traditional sports because they don’t view it as entertainment. The reasons might be many and varied but the result is the same – another set of eyeballs lost, another brick in rugby’s retaining wall removed.
Cricket, which has a much smaller core audience than rugby, recognised the need to change strategy after watching viewing numbers skyrocket for a gimmick Twenty20 match broadcast on free-to-air last summer. The half-million peak audience was a whopping three times the size of the peak audience they got on Sky during the high-profile India tour.
Although NZC had no complaints with the world-class production Sky offered, these numbers convinced bosses to make the painful decision to change broadcast partner.
NZ Rugby was faced with a similar choice but chose to stay, signing a five-year extension with Sky and taking 5 per cent equity in the company.
“This is a great result for NZR,” said CEO Steve Tew, who leaves his post at the end of this year, when the new deal was announced. “We not only have a vastly experienced broadcast partner, but we have a partner prepared to work and invest with us in initiatives that will help grow the game over a prolonged period of time.”
These initiatives remain vague, but it is no exaggeration to say that few had more riding on an All Black victory in Japan than the Sky directors who approved the deal. A week ago Friday, Sky shares sat at 98c. The All Blacks lost. Yesterday they were trading at 90c.
Sky has become a bit of a punching bag in recent years but its commitment to rugby cannot be faulted. As well as the All Blacks, which is clearly the jewel, it has committed to screening every Super Rugby game, women’s rugby, schoolboy rugby, sevens rugby and the flagging NPC.
It’s a massive amount of churn and, if you listen to some, the sheer volume of rugby and fragmentation of the market has become a turn-off.
In 2017, on the eve of the Lions tour, the Herald embarked on a week-long series which attempted to take the pulse of the national game.
We spoke to a range of people who gave an insight to the problems the game was facing.
Many were beyond the sport’s control, including the rapidly changing demographics of Auckland, the rapid depopulation of many rural areas and the increasing emphasis on pay-for-play recreational activities.
There were, however, some constant sticking points. They were the inability of schools to supply clubs with players, and a national provincial championship which had lost its way.
The latter is a pale imitation of the domestic competition which was once the envy of the world.
When Super Rugby arrived in 1996 it added a layer between test and provincial rugby, it took with it much of the tribalism which sport thrives on.
It also created a large pool of players who all expected to be paid.
“When [rugby] went professional back in 1996, the NPC should [never] have gone pro,” former All Black captain Wayne Shelford stated as part of the series. “It allowed these guys to get a false sense of how much they were worth and where they could play their rugby.
“If they didn’t get picked up by a Super side in three years, they were gone. We were losing 21-year-olds, not just from the NPC, but losing them from a club as well.”
Before long, the NPC was squeezed not just from Super Rugby above, but from schoolboy rugby below.
The proliferation of academies and Super Rugby arms races meant more and more players were being contracted out of schools.
This has created a maelstrom of problems, not least that the parents of talented young players want them to get into schools with high-profile rugby programmes, believing it will boost their child’s chances of success. Some schools, particularly low-decile institutions, have in turn basically just given up on rugby.
These may read like a bunch of loosely inter-related threads but rugby’s connection to the lives of New Zealanders has probably never felt this tenuous. It’s the game for middle New Zealand but, as Shelford said two years ago, “professional rugby has killed the middle tier”.
If kids lose interest in rugby at school they do not feed into a club, they don’t follow their province or franchise, they do not buy a pay-TV subscription or replica jersey and they do not mourn an All Blacks semifinal loss.
There was a time when the man most responsible for delivering judgement on the All Blacks and passing sentence on those who failed sat in a glass booth and spoke with a booming voice.
Murray Deaker was a self-taught broadcaster and, for a while there, something close to a cultural touchstone.
Perhaps because of his unconventional route to becoming the “voice of sport” he wasn’t afraid to take on sacred cows. He famously lost a friendship with his former teaching mentor when he wrote a scathing book about the 2007 campaign simply titled Henry’s All Blacks.
Henry was unimpressed. Deaker was unrepentant.
He believes, counter-intuitively perhaps, that the All Blacks’ success has hurt the sport because it has delayed fundamental changes that needed to be made.
Not surprisingly, he holds media accountable, too, saying they have not done enough to maintain interest in the sport or hold truth to power.
“Rugby in this country has huge problems that have not and will not be addressed,” he says. “The success of the All Blacks meant the people in control of the game were able to divert criticism away.
“Sadly, too many in the media are either sycophants or so lacking in rugby knowledge that they never analyse the real issues facing school, club, provincial and Super Rugby.
“They have done rugby an injustice by allowing administrators off the hook.”
There is undoubtedly some truth to Deaker’s assertion but it should come with a caveat: some of the challenges faced by rugby, most particularly how to grab the attention of time-poor people in a digital world, are the same as those faced by big media companies.
Sports media has been squeezed and become more audience driven.
An article about the struggling financials at provincial rugby level might carry a bit of journalistic heft, but it won’t rate nearly as highly as a story about the latest Instagram post by TJ Perenara.
If the convenient way to measure popularity is by what people consistently want to read, then the All Blacks still consistently and convincingly top the popularity charts.
Their “brand” has global reach, which can be gauged in both the ability to secure big multinational sponsors and attract coverage from big media companies that otherwise pay no attention to rugby, like CNN and the New York Times.
At home, the All Blacks still tower above every other sporting entity (as a case in point, there were no double-page spreads devoted to the mood of the nation when, for example, the New Zealand Warriors missed the NRL playoffs).
Rugby remains the country’s true sporting love but it is becoming more evident by the day that it is facing extraordinary challenges across multiple fronts. You could make the argument that few care about anything below test rugby these days, but the country’s flagship team remains a monolith that has been chipped at but not crumbled.
As the All Blacks slip back into the country after the indignity of having to play a bronze-medal match it is probably best if we discount the worst-case scenario.
We still care.
An unprecedented decade of success has seen us grow up a bit, that’s all.
If the All Blacks fall short in France again in four years’ time, let’s see if that still holds.
We might yearn for the days of eerie quiet once more.