Paul Lewis on sport

Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Paul Lewis: Chief key to feelgood factor

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Martin Snedden deserves much credit for the way he has led RWC 2011. Photo / Greg Bowker
Martin Snedden deserves much credit for the way he has led RWC 2011. Photo / Greg Bowker

Rugby has had such a difficult time over the past few years in this country that it is a pleasure to see and feel the energy coming back into the grand old game with RWC 2011 exploding into life on Friday.

We all know the problems - meaningless tests; weakened international teams; the execrably confusing tackled ball rules; a surfeit of rugby as the professional game chases the cash offered by greedy broadcasters who care less about long-term health than short-term ratings - a more-is-actually-less phenomenon that has bruised the game here; want-away All Blacks (although the NZRU has done well there); diminished crowds and interest and, while New Zealand rugby has been looking after its top end (as it indisputably must), the bottom end - the grassroots - are wilting.

The grassroots are the spring from which New Zealand's rugby waters flow. They provide unpolished gems picked from rugby's riverbed and turned into All Blacks. They also provide the fans.

Which is why RWC 2011 is so good for the game here. It is being taken back to the families, the communities, the kids and rugby's wellspring. It is reminding us all that this game which has been such a part of the molecular structure of this place can be so again - and that it is fun and not just cold, professional issues like Sonny Bill's contract and why no one goes to night rugby any more.

Perhaps the person who has done more than any other to foster this upwelling is Martin Snedden, the bloke charged with running the event after the NZRU and Government won the hosting rights several years ago and set the tone for it. We're talking "software" here - not stadiums, referees, transport; the "hardware".

Snedden has been a perfect conduit between the occasionally confused mandarins of world and New Zealand rugby - and the real heartbeat of the game and those who are affected by it.

The World Cup has not been without problems, and we're not just talking stalled trains and ferries. Some have become annoyed with media inquiries into things going wrong (real or imagined) but Snedden has always maintained an approachable, dignified demeanour and chose not to bite back at those biting him.

He counselled us to be patient; he has always been available; he has consistently emphasised the human qualities of the World Cup in a job and at a time when it is easy to be swayed by functionality, the tyranny of the urgent and the constant pressure of deliverables.

We will always be a little country that concentrates on the $22 million of tickets unsold rather than the $246 million sold. Can't help it. It's just the way we are. It's the same with the media - news by its very nature is negative.

Compare Snedden's gentle persistence with Steve Tew, heard on radio recently (encouraged by a yapping Tony Veitch) who gave the New Zealand Herald a serve for its negative coverage, saying if he lived in Auckland, he would not buy "that paper". Steve, if you lived in Auckland, we wouldn't sell it to you ...

Reminds me of Kelvin McKenzie, the volatile former editor of the Sun in London who once famously banned a reader from buying his publication.

So we can be glad that the NZRU do not run the media, leaving it populated with cheerleaders and suck-ups. Newspapers and all forms of media are businesses too, just like the NZRU, and have a right to choose what they put in front of audiences to further their objectives.

However, also like the NZRU, the media have another, more community-based element and if Tew and his ilk can't see that the use of millions of dollars of taxpayers' money is a valid issue, then we might as well all go down the road and have a cowpat sandwich.

Snedden has not put a foot wrong in that way. He has remained a stout ally of media, fans and the event - somehow linking them together and blending things; a bit like one of those cocktails that is composed of a number of fiery spirits but, when mixed the right way, tastes like angels crying on your tongue.

I can remember him as a senior member of the Auckland cricket team back in the 1980s when the Herald used to send some poor sap (oh, all right, it was me ...) away on tour with them. He was part of a talented bunch which included volatile souls like John Bracewell and born entertainers like Gary Troup.

At the bar at night, Snedden would be there for a couple of beers only - but could deliver a droll one-liner or a cutting analysis which demonstrated clearly that the brain was always ticking over; facts were being examined and analysed and that he was thinking further ahead and more broadly than the next beer or the next game.

He has created the environment for RWC to be successful as a feelgood event, maybe like the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch. Let's forget the numbers and the tickets and all; this event is already a success when you factor in the shock (and aftershocks) of Christchurch 2011.

I wasn't at the last World Cup but I was for the 2003 version in Australia. Forget that ghastly semifinal, 2003 was a triumph for the camaraderie; the bonhomie of rugby.

The Brits deeply coloured that tournament with an unparalleled ability to enjoy themselves and to take the fond mickey out of everyone else and themselves. What really made it was the way the Australians responded - with rare good humour and hospitality.

What is also in front of us at the moment is rugby's unique ability to leave it on the field and enjoy it on the lash. I am reminded of the time, when playing at a lowly overseas rugby club, we took on a South African team containing four Springboks, one of them the elegant fullback Andre Joubert.

When they heard me speak (marking me as a Kiwi), one of the Boks gave me a shoeing in a ruck shortly after - normally grounds for a good sulk if not outright revenge.

But, as is the way of rugby, we were all clinking glasses after the game and laughing at each other, prefacing a night out on the town. Great fun. It is rugby's raison d'etre and it is coming now to a town near you. Enjoy.

- Herald on Sunday

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