New Zealand rugby battered by scandal

The New Zealand All Blacks perform the Haka during the Rugby Championship match between South Africa and New Zealand at Kingspark Rugby stadium in Durban on 8 October 2016. Image copyright AFP
Image caption The All Blacks discipline and success on the pitch may be enough for some of fans

In the Land of the Long White Cloud, heroes are clad in black. New Zealand are the world's rugby champions and the all-conquering All Blacks are idolised.

But these are dark times now that New Zealand's national sport has become mired in scandal.

Reports on Wednesday say a member of the Mid Canterbury rugby team has been charged with assault with intent to commit rape in Gisborne, a North Island city, earlier this month.

It follows revelations that star scrum-half Aaron Smith was seen entering a toilet cubicle with a woman at Christchurch Airport. He was dropped from the squad that went on to thrash South Africa 57-15 in Durban.

Earlier this year, members of the Hamilton-based Super Rugby side the Chiefs were accused of sexually assaulting a woman paid to strip at a club function.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Dan Carter (in blue and white) plays for French team Racing 92

There was also anger recently when Losi Filipo, a highly rated teenager at the Wellington Lions, was discharged without conviction over charges of assaulting four people, including two women.

One of his victims was punched and repeatedly struck about the head, leaving him unable to work full-time because of migraines and chronic fatigue.

Then there was a bombshell in France, where the sports daily L'Equipe last week alleged that former All Blacks legend Dan Carter had failed a drug test after his club's victory over Toulon in June. The player's agent has, however, rejected any suggestion Carter was a drug cheat.

Kevin Norquay, a senior sports journalist at Fairfax Media in Wellington told the BBC the scandals and allegations have dented rugby's reputation.

"They are all slightly different but they all add up to people wondering what is going on and having the ability on social media to actually voice their opinions and say 'look, we really don't like this, we're not happy'," he said.

'Rugby is a national religion'

But such is the reverence for rugby players, there are Kiwi fans who will forgive them almost anything.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Aaron Smith made an emotional public apology after being sent home from the All Black's tour

"In New Zealand, rugby is a national religion. These guys are put on a pedestal," said Norquay.

"Even when they do things that most members of society would regard as outside the realms of what is acceptable, there will still be a large group of rugby fans who can't see anything wrong in what All Blacks do."

The BBC has asked New Zealand Rugby (NZR) how it maintains discipline and ensures that players remain role models, and what the organisation does when things go wrong. NZR has yet to fully respond to our inquiry.

So is the sport in crisis?

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Rugby in New Zealand is facing a battle to recover its heroic image

One of Auckland's most respected public relations consultants thinks not, but believes there are serious issues to be addressed.

"I think take the incidents separately [and] it's not so much a crisis, but join them all together and certainly the spotlight is on them [NZR]," said Pippa Lekner, director of The PR Shop.

"We've definitely had a cluster, which has made it a bit of a tricky one for New Zealand Rugby.

The players "will be receiving a lot of advice", she adds. "We often refer to them in the business as 'heroes of the young'. People look up to them, so I imagine that they are being reminded of that on very regular occasions," she added.

"These are young guys and if they play really well the public will forgive them."

Awkward conversation

Aaron Smith has yet to face a formal disciplinary hearing. Any sanction would come on top of a very public humiliation and no doubt awkward conversations with his partner.

One of the people who filmed the player and another woman from outside the toilet cubicle in Christchurch has since said he regretted handing the footage to the media and offered Smith a formal apology.

Among some All Blacks fans there is a sense that he should be punished for what he did, but not banished from the national side.

"You won't see the New Zealand public out there trying to burn Aaron Smith's effigy," said Nigel Dobbie, a Sydney-based Kiwi supporter.

"They are very forgiving. They expect the powers that be to exercise their powers of discipline and we move on. I don't think he should be kicked off the All Blacks for what he did."

Image copyright AP
Image caption Fans will be hoping the scandals don't distract from the All Blacks' focus on their upcoming game against Australia

The men in black are the undisputed kings of the world. They are on a world record-equalling run of 17 consecutive test wins and will look forward with relish to a clash against old foes Australia at Eden Park in Auckland on 22 October.

"I have lived in Japan, France, England and Australia and I have never been anywhere where one sport is so dominant," explained Prof Richard Light from the University of Canterbury.

"People here live and die the All Blacks. In the past, when they have lost in World Cups, the economy drops.

"It is quite difficult to separate the culture of New Zealand from the culture of the All Blacks. They would have to be one of the most powerful brands in sport in the world."

But the Australian-born academic has warned that with so much power comes temptation, as Aaron Smith knows only too well.

"To me it suggests a touch of arrogance and it reflects the problem that a lot of young, highly-paid sports stars have all around the world.

"They live in a surreal bubble and are losing touch with reality."

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