Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rio Olympics 2016: 'All Blacks' beaten by Japan?

Japan celebrate their win as Regan Were and captain Scott Curry stand dejected. Photo / photosport.nz
Japan celebrate their win as Regan Were and captain Scott Curry stand dejected. Photo / photosport.nz

It has taken more than 110 years of blood, sweat and tears to build the All Blacks into one of the world's best sporting brands and just 15 minutes to inflict serious and lasting damage.

As headlines reverberate around the world telling of Japan's shock win at Rio, New Zealand Rugby will have to finally address its hugely unpopular decision to re-name the national sevens team the All Blacks.

Regardless of what the men's sevens team do next at the Olympics - even if they win the gold medal - the facts can't be changed that huge parts of the world believe the All Blacks suffered a humiliating loss on the biggest sporting stage of all.

The Japan Times and Reuters both used the term All Blacks in the headline of their reports on Japan's shock 14-12 victory in Rio.

But to the vast majority of New Zealanders, the All Blacks were nowhere near Rio. They were back in New Zealand getting ready to assemble in Auckland ahead of the Rugby Championship.

The All Blacks, as New Zealanders understand them, play 15-a-side rugby, are back-to-back world champions, undefeated in 11 consecutive tests and in possession of the best win ratio of virtually any team in any code from anywhere in the world.

The All Blacks are selected from the best players in the country; not from whoever is left over after the five Super Rugby sides have taken their fill.

The distinction is critical. The All Blacks trade off their success to a significant extent: their sustained excellence is their unique selling point and worth an estimated $80 million a year in direct income which is close to 70 per cent of all the game in New Zealand's revenue.

That money comes from two major sponsorship deals with AIG and adidas, a handful of smaller arrangements with domestic corporations; broadcast income from Sky TV and ticket sales from tests.

It's the power of the brand that also opens the opportunity for the All Blacks to play in offshore venues such as Hong Kong, Tokyo and Chicago for large cash sums.

In 2012 the NZRU extended the 'All Blacks' prefix to the sevens, Maori and Under-20 teams. The justification was that the rest of the world didn't distinguish between the All Blacks and other New Zealand national teams and already perceived them to be one generic brand.

There was, as chief executive Steve Tew said, significant commercial incentive, too. "NZ Rugby made a significant move to extend the All Blacks brand to the sevens and Maori teams. We did not take that step lightly. But we knew it made sense as these teams honoured the All Blacks legacy of success.

"What it did for us, was to ensure we could showcase the All Blacks brand in more places and time-zones and this in turn is helping to expand the commercial and partnership opportunities available to us."

It was a move that drew heavy criticism, reflecting that most New Zealanders felt the brand was being cheapened and that the national body was taking long term risks with the reputation and standing of its most important asset for short term financial gain.

The danger was that that the sevens team, for all that they had enjoyed good moments through the 2000s, were no guarantee to uphold and maintain the values and success of the All Blacks.

They were given a status they hadn't earned, all so the rugby union could leverage more sponsorship income by offering a broader portfolio of teams to stick corporate logos on.

It has been an issue on which the NZRU have been bullish and unrepentant, refusing to accept there were risks attached and potentially significant downsides.

But now they have to ask themselves how they feel about seven billion people believing Japan beat the mighty All Blacks in Rio. Now they have to ask whether it was right to see the legacy of the sevens team as being on an equal footing with the All Blacks and to determine whether the critics of this move maybe had a valid point all along.

- NZ Herald

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