Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby booze rituals shock for coaches

Binge drinking as punishment was once a part of team life for our top rugby players.

All Black coaches Steve Hansen, Graham Henry and Wayne Smith were shocked by the team's heavy drinking antics. Photo / Brett Phibbs
All Black coaches Steve Hansen, Graham Henry and Wayne Smith were shocked by the team's heavy drinking antics. Photo / Brett Phibbs

All Black coaching staff were shocked by the "inappropriate" antics of some heavy-drinking players while they were on tour.

After a big loss to the Springboks in Johannesburg in 2004, some players got heavily intoxicated during a "court session", which shocked newly-appointed manager Darren Shand.

In court sessions, team members were required to drink large amounts of alcohol as punishment for real and fictitious misdemeanours.

Shand said a big loss didn't put the team off drinking - in fact, players gave the impression drinking was more important than the playing.

"I came from the Crusaders where we had court sessions as well, but only when we won. I can remember in 2004 being surprised that the team had a court session after we had lost heavily to South Africa.

"Some guys were heavily intoxicated - to the extent they had to be helped to bed. We were staying in a four or five-star resort and their behaviour was inappropriate.

"In my experience, when these sessions got really out of hand was when hard liquor was introduced."

Shand wasn't alone in his concerns. Coaches Graham Henry, Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith were surprised by the extent of the drinking culture when they took control of the national team in 2004.

Hansen said the All Blacks' drinking habits were far different from what he had experienced in his previous coaching role with Wales.

"I was surprised we hadn't moved forward," he said.

From then on, there was a concentrated effort to make changes and although the changes were not immediately met with on-field success, it was widely thought to have sparked a revolution throughout the New Zealand professional game.

Now, professional rugby can no longer stand accused of having an endemic binge drinking culture. The game no longer sanctions or encourages players to drink excessively.

"We have moved away from the old ways," said Hansen.

"We still have a laugh but we don't force alcohol down the throats of young men any more. We discuss things. It's now all about performing."

Sponsorship ban tipped

A ban on alcohol sponsorship in sport is on the way, says the head of one of New Zealand sport's strongest player unions.

Heath Mills, who as head of the New Zealand Cricket Players' Association has dealt with the fallout from Jesse Ryder's struggles with the bottle, says the culture in professional sports teams regarding the consumption of alcohol has changed dramatically over the past 20 years.

"Alcohol consumption in our professional sports teams has dropped significantly," Mills said.

He describes incidents such as the well publicised struggles of Ryder and All Black Zac Guildford as "isolated".

While he acknowledged professional sports people receive a portion of their income indirectly from alcohol sponsorships, there was seldom a direct relationship between players and alcohol companies.

The situation in Australia, where sports such as soccer and netball have opted out of alcohol sponsorship, might well become the norm in New Zealand, Mills said.

"I have no doubt there is going to be more of a creep towards that at some point.

"We've seen that with tobacco. I guess alcohol is the next thing on the list."

-Steve Deane

- NZ Herald

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