Gregor Paul on rugby

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: Talk of cancelled Hong Kong test is phooey

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Norm Hewitt and Richard Cockerill. Photo / Getty Images
Norm Hewitt and Richard Cockerill. Photo / Getty Images

Forget all this talk of the All Blacks playing Australia in London this year.

The fourth Bledisloe test will be in Hong Kong. And it will be played.

While ticket sales have been sobering - only 14,000 - both New Zealand and Australia have already broken even on those numbers.

Obviously they don't want to play in a half-empty stadium, but both are hopeful they can exert pressure on the Hong Kong Government and organisers to market the game better and more aggressively.

Hong Kong has just as much to lose if the match is a dud. It is recognised as a world-class location for hosting big events and has a reputation of success. A poor turnout for the Bledisloe, and much of that will be tainted.

Still, even if the game is pushed hard in the next four-six weeks, there is some concern at just how poor sales have been so far. At the equivalent stage in 2008, more than 25,000 tickets had been sold.

The All Blacks are not quite the golden goose the NZRU believed they were and this will almost certainly be the last 'exhibition' game played in Asia for some time.

If there are to be more of these types of games, the US will be the preferred market. It's also likely the NZRU will have to look past Australia and the Bledisloe Cup as the game they use on neutral soil. The prospect of playing Ireland in Boston or New York has been mooted before, while Denver was keen to host the All Blacks in 2009 and came close to securing a deal.

The prospect of shifting this year's game to London, as has been mooted, isn't feasible. There isn't enough time to sell the vital corporate packages.

* The extent of the IRB's desire to suffocate the World Cup in bureaucracy and petty rules has become clear with the revelation there will be strict protocol on how the haka must be received.

All teams facing the haka and other pre-match challenges next year will not be allowed to encroach closer than 10 metres. If they do, as the Wallaroos discovered at the recent Women's Worlds Cup, they will be fined.

Absolute tosh. Teams should be free to receive the haka how they like.

If they want to stand on halfway, or slowly advance, or turn their backs, or return to the changing rooms while it's going on, then let them.

The haka is a welcome and established part of test rugby. Most players who have faced it say they loved it and in truth it often feels as if opponents get more out if it than the All Blacks. Long may it continue.

But the world should not be forced into some kind of cultural servitude. To dictate how teams must behave affords the All Blacks reverential status, as if they are the only nation with any ingrained heritage or meaningful tradition.

It also removes the prospect of unexpected drama. Who could forget the way the boggle-eyed Willie Anderson angrily advanced his Irish side into the All Blacks' faces in 1989? Anderson and Shelford ending up nose to nose - unforgettable; brilliant.

England's Richard Cockerill did much the same in 1998, impeding Norm Hewitt to spark a rivalry that ended in those two scrapping in the back of a taxi later that night.

Then there was the ill-judged strategy of the Wallabies in 1996 - when they carried on warming up at the far end of Athletic Park, ignoring the All Blacks. Different but doomed - they lost 43-6.

The IRB should be told to get stuffed. No one should sign any World Cup Participation Agreement that infringes on the way teams mentally prepare for the biggest games of their lives.

The rest of the rugby world is already respectful towards the haka by allowing the All Blacks to do it before every test.

It's just nonsense to say it's disrespectful or culturally insensitive to do anything other than stand peacefully 10 metres back while it's going on.

It's test football, not war, or a powhiri. In most countries that face the haka, sticking your tongue out is disrespectful.

Freedom of choice is everything, something of which the IRB seems blissfully ignorant.

- Herald on Sunday

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