Gregor Paul 's Opinion

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: Best AIG policy is honesty on All Blacks

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It's been hard on this tour to know where AIG ends and the All Blacks begin. The tentacles of adidas have enveloped the picture, too, and church and state aren't so obviously separated any more.

Such a blurring was inevitable. AIG have made a significant investment - believed to be about US$10 million ($12.2 million) a year - and they want to leverage their association. They weren't going to write the cheque and leave it at that.

It's simple business sense and it looks as if they have sparked adidas into a more active strategy. There have been murmurings that the German-based group are miffed that their logo on the jersey is a little harder to spot - what with AIG being slap, bang in the middle. The City likes to call this 'increased activity asset sweating'.

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Others may wonder if it's more than that and see that there are not-so-hidden dangers lying down the road for the New Zealand Rugby Union.

The national body has a tough job trying to balance the books, invest in all levels of the game, retain the best players and keep the All Blacks successful. Until now, they have done an outstanding job. But there are worrying signs their strategy is confused, inconsistent and heavily influenced by their stakeholders.

Anyone who has pointed this out on this trip has been told that they just don't understand. Take, for example, the rationale of the All Blacks playing in Tokyo.

In August 2012, the Fijian Rugby Union requested a test against the All Blacks to mark their centenary. 'No can do' was the response from the NZRU - no available windows, no business case and too short notice. In May 2013, talks began between the NZRU and the Japanese Rugby Union and six weeks later it was announced the All Blacks will be playing a November test in Tokyo.

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The NZRU didn't make money from the fixture and the reason was said to be the need for a 'softer' development game for the fringe players. Yet the national body is understood to harbour ambition to be the biggest rugby brand in Japan ahead of the 2019 World Cup.

Just as difficult to understand is their ongoing talks to play in the United States next year. Again, it's supposedly about development of the fringe players but so far the NZRU can't find any opposition. Probe further and it's supposedly about growing the game of rugby because the NZRU feel they have a responsibility to do their bit. Apparently that is no longer the IRB's job.

It's best not to question how it will grow the game in the US when the one thing the NZRU seems certain about is that the fixture will not be against the US Eagles.

Again, the strategy can be challenged as the two tests the All Blacks played in 2008 and 2010 in Hong Kong and the one in Tokyo in 2009 had zero impact in terms of growing the game in those nations.

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The New York-based AIG may well be pulling the strings - which is fine if they are. They got into this sponsorship for a reason and they want to make money, grow their profile and justify their investment. There's no shame in that, so why not just confirm that's what the potential game in the US is all about?

The NZRU are keen to avoid such an admission and instead stress that the decisions about where the All Blacks play are made after balanced assessment, part of an holistic strategy. Maybe so, but the balance is still that the All Blacks have played two tests in Hong Kong; two in Japan; are close to agreeing to one in America and never once have they been to Fiji, Samoa or Tonga.

Being commercially ambitious is no crime. The New Zealand public have come to accept, by and large, that the All Blacks have transcended the sporting world; they are part-team, part-brand. They are part-sporting entity, part-business.

Still, it would sit more easily with the people who invest a bit of their soul and much of their hard-earned in the All Blacks, if there was a touch more sensitivity about some of the sponsors' activity.

As the All Blacks trained in Paris on the Thursday before the test, staff and guests of AIG were able to attend. Given the company was bailed out by the US government, the champagne picnic wasn't a good look.

Across the French capital, there were remnants of the financial crises; nowhere was it more obvious than in the Metro, where a whole subterranean community is living rough, begging and trying to eke out an existence.

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In Dublin, too, there were scars. All along the scenic drive to the fishing village of Howth on Dublin's outskirts, there were empty houses, windows boarded up and the grass climbing high and unkempt. They were built in the good times but now stand as monuments to a time of greed and misadventure. That period had genuine victims: families were torn, lives ruined and not everyone was given a hand into the lifeboat.

Paris was an illuminating week in regard to this new culture of increased corporate demand around the team. Adidas, who also make the French jersey, have a pub which they wanted to make the epicentre of the All Blacks' media activities. Usually the team hotel is where it all happens - the convenience factor overrides all. But somehow, on the Tuesday that week, adidas had control and Richie McCaw and Kieran Read were dragged across the city so they could be interviewed with giant posters of All Black and French players in the background.

After being left outside in the rain for an hour-and-a-half, New Zealand media were told by an adidas representative they would have a maximum of five minutes to interview both players.

Yet a full-page feature ran in French sports paper L'Equipe the following day as two of their journalists had been in the car travelling across town with McCaw and Read. Perhaps it was the language barrier but it did appear their access to the car was granted by adidas.

The whole shambolic business felt uncomfortably stage-managed - a bit like when Aaron Cruden visited an adidas store a few days later on a promotional visit and was asked to lose a game of fussball he had to play with a member of the public.

The NZRU believe they are an easy target for those who can't accept there has to be some corporate incursion of the All Blacks.

Most New Zealanders understand the All Blacks can't survive without money. The concern is that, over the last two years, more decisions are being made with money in mind. Whether it be direct rewards - such as the game at Twickenham last year - or the indirect benefits of building a brand in Japan, the balance is being swayed by commercial rather than rugby interests.

Case in point - the All Blacks are hyper-sensitive about their Thursday training session before a Saturday test. Media, who are vetted, skilled and professional, can't film the middle section. Yet in London, those fans who were with the All Black official tour group, were sideline guests and able to film the whole session on phones and tablets. The risk of that footage ending up on social media or Youtube was enormous.

Chasing the dollar so hard is dangerous. The justification is that the professional game here needs money - without it, the players will leave and investment in the grassroots will die.

But that's not strictly true. The game in New Zealand needs a baseline of investment; there has to be enough money to provide a professional framework and all the relevant resources. There comes a point, though, when money can't buy the qualities that separate the All Blacks from everyone else.

Money didn't pay for Ma'a Nonu's miracle pass at Twickenham or Charles Piutau's in Paris.

There comes a point when selling replica shirts in Japan is going to make no material difference to the outcome of tests. It's how the money is used that's vital - it has to be, otherwise England would be untouchable.

Of more concern is this constant message from the NZRU that they need more; they have to be bigger. This is the illusionary bubble that the corporate world creates and why markets since time immemorial have been boom and bust. Infinite growth is not sustainable, greed corrupts and, in the case of the All Blacks, may deter from the whole experience.

There is a prospect of reaching the dreaded place of diminishing returns: that the effort, hassle and demands made of the players to help generate extra money detracts from their ability to perform.

A hypothetical question - but how many of the current squad would settle for a small pay cut to have fewer obligations to fulfil for stakeholders?

Certainly those players being dragged to either Sao Paulo, New York or Dubai on Monday morning for a few days of commercial obligations may feel like that.

Kieran Read sounded the best warning about how the players feel. He said in relation to the prospect of playing more tests in a calendar season: "Just make sure they are doing it for the right reasons and playing for the right reasons. You do that when you are fresh and when you want to be playing."

The All Blacks have forever been the people's team. Lose that and they lose everything.

- Herald on Sunday

Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer. He has written several books on rugby including the Reign of King Henry, Black Obsession and For the Love of the Game.

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