Friday, August 21, 2009

A reassuring peek inside the ABs' team culture

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, August 18.)

THE CURMUDGEON was privileged recently to be granted exclusive access to an All Blacks team meeting.

Coming after two humiliating losses to the Springboks, it was a crucial session aimed at getting the world’s greatest rugby team back on track.

NZRU officials took the unprecedented step of inviting me to observe proceedings because they were eager to counter the growing public perception that the All Blacks have gone soft and are no longer as feared by opponents as they used to be.

The only condition was that I had to guarantee anonymity to any players mentioned – a small price, I thought, for the rare opportunity to glimpse first-hand the pressures faced by our top professional sportsmen.

Team management warned me beforehand that it would be a brutal session, and so it turned out. I was shaken by its intensity.

The meeting opened with a team official launching a withering attack on player A, who had been seen in a Durban bar wearing a non-approved hair gel. The player’s excuse – that he had a new executive assistant who had packed the wrong makeup kit – was contemptuously brushed aside.

Next, player B was fined for having turned up late at a promotional appearance to launch the ABs’ new personal fragrance range, evocatively named Scrum. He tried to explain that he’d been delayed by a crisis meeting with his personal investment adviser. “I was dangerously over-exposed to commercial property and needed to strengthen my bonds and equities portfolios,” he said before impatient managers, clearly in no mood for excuses, cut him short.

The team management then turned their attention to a corrosive squabble between players C and D, caused by player C complaining that the sponsor’s car supplied to player D had leather upholstery and a GPS system while his didn’t. “We lost a lineout at Absa Stadium because you two were bickering about this and didn’t hear the call,” Graham Henry snarled.

Player E had his pay docked because he failed to turn up at a corporate golf event where one of the All Blacks’ sponsors had booked him to add a bit of star quality to their hospitality tent. Asked why he’d let the side down, Player E said he had foolishly accepted an invitation to play for his old club team that day because he felt he needed the game time after sitting on the reserves’ bench for much of the last two tests.

Player F was reminded that he’d failed to fulfil a key condition of his contract, which stipulated the number of times his name was to be mentioned in the gossip columns (with a bonus payment every time he was pictured with a hottie). On a recent Saturday night when he should have been doing the rounds of the Viaduct Basin bars, he was seen working out at a gym.

There was much more torrid stuff in the same vein, but you get the picture. I came away greatly reassured that the All Blacks’ fearsome mystique was safe.

* * *

I HAD TO smile at the 60-something gentleman photographed on the front page of this paper last week wearing a hoodie to demonstrate his solidarity with misunderstood young people.

He appears not to realise that young people who wear hoodies do so for the very purpose of differentiating themselves from everyone else. The last thing they want is to be patronised by oldies trying to appear cool by wearing the same clobber.

It’s the same with well-meaning burghers who think the answer to the boy racer problem is to provide out-of-the-way venues where they can legally do burnouts and donuts. Such people fail to understand that burnouts and donuts depend for their appeal on there being people nearby whose peace and quiet can be shattered. The moment something is sanctioned by society it loses all appeal.

Still, some good may have come from the photo of the old bloke in the hoodie. It may have convinced all self-respecting hoodie wearers under 30 to rummage through their drawers and incinerate the now fatally tainted garments.

* * *

IT’S PROBABLY too much to hope that the citizens of Tonga will decide they’ve finally had enough of their worse-than-useless monarch, who paused just long enough to mutter a few token words of condolence following the worst disaster in the country’s memory before boarding a plane bound for Scotland.

So what if more than 90 of his people had drowned? Far more important things demanded the king’s attention – like taking the salute at the Edinburgh Tattoo, where he could dress up in strange clothes and indulge in the anachronistic British pageantry of which he’s so fond.

If Tonga were any other country, enraged citizens would be digging up the airport runway to ensure this monocled popinjay can never return. Kings have been beheaded for less.

But alas, Tonga is a deeply respectful and hierarchical culture that seems willing to endure all manner of abuse from its hereditary leaders. King George’s plane had hardly left the ground before his subjects were making excuses for his indifference to their grief.

If Fidel Castro had tried to ignite revolution in Tonga, he would have slit his wrists in despair inside a week.

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