Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: All Blacks spurn Sevens heaven

New Zealand All Blacks rugby player Sonny Bill Williams (L) takes part in a training session ahead of the Singapore Sevens rugby tournament. Photo / Getty Images
New Zealand All Blacks rugby player Sonny Bill Williams (L) takes part in a training session ahead of the Singapore Sevens rugby tournament. Photo / Getty Images

New Zealand Rugby loves the idea that there is more than one All Black team. Quite emphatically, the country's top players don't agree. To them, there is only one All Black team - a message they have delivered by their mass rejection of sevens.

The strength with which this position has been made clear has surprised NZR and exposed what appears to be a significantly different set of priorities to those held by the players.

Employee and employer aren't on the same page and at the core of that divergence is the bosses' conviction that they were right to bestow All Black status on the New Zealand Sevens, Maori and Under-20 teams in 2012. It was a decision that earned immediate public ire because it was made for commercial reasons, to create more All Black assets that could be sponsored.

Never an organisation to bend or adapt to unfavourable public opinion, NZR has staunchly ignored those who say that widening the All Black family has cheapened the brand.

Ignoring their own players won't be so easy, however, and executives can't say Olympic rejection has no relevance to the perceived or real value of their wider All Black brand.

NZR slapped the words "All Blacks" on to their sevens team and tried to sell it to the players as holding the same prestige.

In NZR's view, playing sevens at the Olympics should be regarded as one of the great honours in the game.

They thought a handful of World Cup-winning All Blacks would see it that way too and that the likes of Beauden Barrett, Ben Smith and Julian Savea would be their poster boys for Rio.

But none of them are going and that's because the players aren't in love with sevens the way NZR is.

The players have rationalised that if sevens is as big as NZR says it is, how come Sir Gordon Tietjens normally selects his squad from players who failed to win Super Rugby contracts?

The athleticism, conditioning, skill level and physicality of sevens is universally admired and respected, but in New Zealand sevens is only a career option for older players who have failed to crack Super Rugby or younger ones who are using it to fast-track their way there.

NZR figured that the Olympic carrot would change the perception and chief executive Steve Tew admits he's been surprised that it hasn't.

He also believes that once the players see sevens being played at the Olympics, more All Blacks will sign up for the 2020 Games in Tokyo.

But that thinking illustrates a failure to recognise that nothing is going to happen between now and 2020 to persuade the best players here that anything compares with winning test caps for the All Blacks.

The scenario will be no different in 2020 - the top players will have to decide whether they are prepared to sacrifice playing for the All Blacks to go to the Olympics to play sevens? The answer then, just as it is now, will predominantly be no. Players know what it means to be an All Black, a real one, and the value that will hold for life.

The simplest way to think about this and to determine whether it is appropriate for NZR to persist with its wider branding strategy is to imagine an All Black jersey and a sevens jersey laid out on the floor and ask any player in New Zealand which one they want.

New Zealand's sevens, Maori and Under-20 teams are strong, valid, aspirational parts of the rugby landscape. They are proud institutions in their own right and critical parts of the pathway.

But the one thing they are not, is All Blacks.

- NZ Herald

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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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