Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Maori US tour may pave way for ABs

Tim Bateman and the Maori All Blacks beat Canada in England last year. Photo / Getty Images
Tim Bateman and the Maori All Blacks beat Canada in England last year. Photo / Getty Images

The Maori will head to the United States later this year on what could be the first of many tours New Zealand teams make to North America.

The New Zealand Rugby Union has agreed a new strategic plan that will shortly be unveiled and one of the top priorities is to build and enhance global relationships.

Forging closer links with Sanzar partners is an obvious must but the US has also been singled out as a target. It has been on the NZRU's radar since 2004 but to date the relationship has been confined to a few New Zealand coaches holding short coaching clinics in the States.

The Maori tour represents a major breakthrough and has much to do with the arrival of AIG as a sponsor of the All Blacks. The US-based insurer has played a critical role in facilitating the tour, the details of which are not yet signed off - but the expectation is that the Maori will play at least three games in November, one of which is likely to be in Denver against the US Eagles.

Having spent big to sponsor the family of 'All Blacks' - the national team, sevens, Maori, women's and under-20s - AIG are now looking to drive value for money from their commitment. They want their brand showcased in the States and the NZRU want Americans to engage with the sport.

The aligned interests have never been a secret and it was inevitable that, once the insurer was on board, they would start to wield influence beyond simply handing over a cheque.

"America is a key focus for us," says NZRU general manager of strategic relationships, Nigel Cass. "We have a number of teams that carry the All Black brand and we would like for them to be playing in North America.

"It is a big challenge planning tours in terms of finding venues, dealing with broadcasters and working through the financial details.

"There is no doubt that the relationships and understanding AIG has [in the US] has made things that little bit easier."

That's the way of modern sponsorship - slapping a logo on the jersey is only the beginning.

The vibe from the suits, once the paperwork is finished and the tour announced, will be unbridled positivity and enthusiasm, which is understandable.

The Maori have provided some classic moments over the years, helped develop great players and they have an aura, this air of mystique that sets the spine tingling.

Due to financial pressures, the NZRU hasn't been able to support the Maori the way they wanted over the past five years or so. When money has been short, it has been the Maori programme that has suffered and it has been a priority in recent seasons to find and then fund meaningful fixtures.

Last year, on a short tour of Europe, the Maori lost to champion club Leicester before thrashing an RFU Championship XV and beating Canada 32-19 in Oxford in spite of having two players yellow-carded.

The NZRU will also see the Maori tour as vindication of their decision to last year extend the 'All Blacks' branding to all the national teams. The rationale was to entice sponsors by offering them the chance to buy an 'All Black' association.

While AIG have bought the whole All Black family, it is the daddy, the All Blacks, that enables them to leverage maximum value. The Maori will make an impact in the States, the All Blacks would make a bigger one. But AIG aren't putting pressure on the NZRU at this juncture to have the All Blacks play in the US or elsewhere.

"AIG are very clear about what they have committed to," says Cass. "They understand the All Blacks have an established programme of tests and I don't think there is any pressure in that regard."

The defeat to England last year - which was the 14th test the All Blacks played in 2012 and arranged purely to make money - left coach Steve Hansen with a strong argument against playing 'extra' tests in either 2013 or 2014, as they would be detrimental to his side's chances of defending the World Cup in 2015.

But the All Blacks heading to the US post-2015 has to be a strong possibility. Cass says that while there is no expectation, any future opportunities will be explored.

- Herald on Sunday

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