The biggest thing that happened in 2018 was the emergence of the social activist footballer.

It was the year players found their voice and were willing to speak out on issues that mattered to them.

Brad Weber aired his disgust at Israel Folau's homophobia; TJ Perenara made a strong statement about his respect for Jacinda Ardern; Sonny Bill Williams showed his displeasure about the use of "ring girls" to promote his boxing match; Rieko Ioane had a view about the poaching scandal in schools rugby and Nehe Milner-Skudder spoke about his feelings on cultural issues after a Santa parade in Nelson.

Not everyone will agree but this sudden need that players are feeling to show they are connected to wider social issues is welcome.


For too long, the prevailing culture among professional players has been to play dumb. For too long, players have tried to project themselves as having no need to be aware of what is happening outside the bubble of their team environment.

As a result, many bright, articulate young men have sold themselves to the masses as not only insular and one dimensional but also a little bit thick.

It's hardly been a raging endorsement for their role model status but worse, it has left thousands of parents declaring their children aren't going to be professional rugby players.

The way most players avoid saying anything meaningful or holding any kind of valid thought about anything other than the machinations of a tackled ball situation creates this firm belief that it takes the better part of 20 years to educate a man and professional rugby barely 20 minutes to destroy it.

An equation like that doesn't hold much appeal in many households. Why would engaged and driven youngsters pursue a career where they leave their brain and social conscience at the door?

Why would anyone want to be part of something so isolated and so entitled as to believe pervasive social trends effect everyone but them?

"I don't know about that, mate, I'm just here to play footy," is not a mantra for life and yet almost every professional player of the past 20 years has been willing to adopt it and see how far it will take them.

But maybe now all that will change.

Weber stood up for gay members of his own family and earned global praise for doing so.

He spoke out and his world didn't crumble. He wasn't ostracised by his peers or shunned by the public but instead became something of a hero for using his status and profile to influence the debate.

It wasn't necessarily the views he expressed that earned him such praise, it was the fact he had a view and was willing to offer it.

And that's the same with all the players who have been willing to engage this year - they have come out the other side with more respect.

Whether we agree with what they have said hardly matters - it is just refreshing and maybe even a relief to find out they are in fact human, sitting at the breakfast table enraged and enthralled with all the same things as the rest of us.

Rugby bosses need to see this and learn something from it. Most of their days are spent fretting about how their game can continue to attract players and stay relevant in a changing sporting landscape.

And yet they don't seem to be able to see that the highly-managed, say nothing, play dumb cultures they have helped foster with their heavy investment in PR lackeys has, in fact, damaged the sport almost more than rising fears about injury and concussion.

Rugby hasn't sold itself as a sport with human interest in the body of the narrative. It has buried the personalities of the players, encouraged them to adopt an almost homogeneous persona, presumably under some misguided notion that having opinions or views on issues that matter could be interpreted as individuals being bigger than the team.

A rugby team in the amateur days typically captured an eclectic cross-section of society where views flowed freely and personalities were never subdued for the sake of a contrived harmony.

It's what made the sport special and certainly the best teams forged, despite or possibly because of the range of their socio-demographics, the tightest bonds imaginable.

Maybe that's still the case in professional teams today but no one would know as the players are just there to play footy, mate.