COMMENT:

I wasn't going to write about alcohol this week. I've talked and written about it before, and it's Dry July, so we're seeing the conversation in lots of places. But I heard an extraordinary interview on the radio the other day that made me change my mind.

An interview between RNZ Checkpoint's Lisa Owen and the Crusaders rugby franchise CEO Colin Mansbridge seemed to me to demonstrate everything that's wrong about our drinking culture in New Zealand.

The interview was in the wake of an investigation into two separate incidents in South Africa in which two Crusaders players were accused of inappropriate behaviour towards members of the public. Both players were cleared of wrongdoing by the investigation, although there was an admission that alcohol was involved in one incident, and New Zealand Rugby had asked the Crusaders to urgently review their protocols for team post-match activity.

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The team's CEO, though, seemed to have completely ruled out the possibility of changing these protocols to a zero-alcohol-on-tour rule.

"A moderate amount of alcohol in a social setting is a great opportunity for [players] to decompress in the same way as you might pop home and have a glass of wine this evening," he told Owen.

It's common for us to think of alcohol as a de-stresser; a "decompressor". But how flawed that thinking is. It's basically saying the only way we can relax is by ingesting a harmful toxin.

When asked the quite relevant question - is it unreasonable to expect players to go dry when on tour? – Mansbridge replied that he thought it was "unreasonable for players to be treated in a non-human fashion".

This really bugs me. It is not inhuman to say to professional athletes that in the course of their working life, zero alcohol is the expectation. I'm surprised it's not already a rule for rugby teams, to be honest, given the well-established ways alcohol impairs performance. One of the healthiest things any human can do – let alone an elite sportsperson – is to avoid alcohol.

Richie Mo'unga of the Crusaders Photo / Getty Images
Richie Mo'unga of the Crusaders Photo / Getty Images

In discussing the investigation, NZR head of rugby Nigel Cass said Richie Mo'unga - who admitted to drinking the night he was accused of groping a woman and spitting beer in her face - had "been reminded of his obligation to be a role model for the sport at all times ... even in a social setting".

He is right that our rugby players are role models. They're role models not just for what they do on the field, but how they behave off the field.

Doesn't that extend to their health behaviours, too? Aren't they also potentially some of our best health role models?

How amazing would it be if our top rugby players – these very influential people – modelled great healthy behaviours to our young people? They could demonstrate healthy eating; choosing water over sugary drinks; avoiding junky food. Admittedly this – and not drinking – might be tricky given some teams' current sponsors. But role-modelling healthy drinking behaviour should be the minimum we could expect.

Niki Bezzant is editor-at-large for Healthy Food Guide; www.healthyfood.com