COMMENT:

It used to be a relatively simple business for coaching and management teams to evaluate the off-field threats that could derail a World Cup campaign.

Rugby players used to be relatively primal beings, easy to predict in how they might stray from the agreed code of behaviour and get themselves into trouble.

Alcohol, or misuse of, has always been viewed as the biggest threat to destroying harmony, unity and performance of a test team.

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Rugby took its long-held drinking culture into the professional age and has been battling for the last two decades to kill the institutionalised promotion of excess.

It's a battle it has mostly won but in times of stress, a big night out remains the default release for those players struggling to cope.

And there is no doubt some players will struggle in Japan later this year as the pressure of a World Cup is intense. No doubt there will be one team dogged by a drinking scandal.

Expectation is high, players live in each other's pockets for weeks on end, training endlessly, trying to cope with the stress of first making the squad and then winning a starting place.

It's an emotional powder keg, highly likely to go boom at some stage as has been witnessed over the years.

The most memorable explosion came within the All Blacks in 2011 when Israel Dagg and Cory Jane couldn't stand another night cooped in the team hotel and drank themselves into quite the state three nights before the World Cup quarter-final.

It was a pivotal moment – a genuine test of the team's ability to forgive and stay connected and an even bigger test of individual character for Dagg and Jane who had to find a way to win back the trust of their peers.

The All Blacks managed to hold together through that episode, but management and players agree they would rather it had never happened.

England, too, had their problems at that tournament, after management agreed the players could have a night out in Queenstown the day after they won their first pool game.

Somehow a few beers became a lot of beers and lurid headlines and the tabloid media plagued England for the remainder of what turned out to be a miserable campaign.

But what the last few months have shown is that the landscape has changed and while the misuse of alcohol remains a credible threat to derail a World Cup campaign, it is not the primary cause of concern.

How players use social media at the World Cup is now of more concern than how they may use alcohol.

By and large New Zealand's top players can be trusted to make sensible and appropriate decisions about how much to drink, but it is increasingly obvious some don't have the same understanding of where the boundaries sit when it comes to social media use.

Across the Tasman Israel Folau has done untold damage to rugby in Australia, all by typing 16 words into his Instagram account.

The case of Israel Folau shows just how much damage one social media post can do. Photo /Getty
The case of Israel Folau shows just how much damage one social media post can do. Photo /Getty

The smart phone has become potentially the most destructive tool in rugby environments and seeing players clutching their device wherever they go, as so many do, should worry management teams more than it seemingly does.

In Italy late last year that All Blacks captain Kieran Read alluded to the challenges he has faced relating to younger players and understanding their expectations.

"It is 12 years since I came through and these guys are growing up in a completely different age to the one that I grew up in," he said.

"The pressure of social media is real that is another part of this whole puzzle you have got to grasp with these guys."

What he was getting at is that players now live on their phones. They know what the public are saying and buying into both the positive and negative without adequate maturity or ability to realise none of it matters.

New Zealand has not yet had a player create a social media scandal of any significant note but that's largely due to good luck rather than anything else.

There are guidelines about what is and isn't acceptable but they are not definitive and at a World Cup the chances of a player posting negatively to refute public criticism seems dangerously high.

Social media's greatest strength of immediacy is also its greatest danger in that in the heat of the moment, a player can react, say something they regret yet have no way to wipe that from history.

It's also proliferated this sense of validation, wrongly persuading regular users that they most hold and reveal their opinions on issues beyond their scope of interest, knowledge or influence.

This is why life has become so much harder for coaching and management teams and the World Cup will be a daily trial of their nerves, waiting to see if someone has inadvertently lit up social media.

Comparatively, it's easier to set enforceable, unambiguous guidelines around alcohol use.

It's comparatively easier to manage, too, with curfews, while within the All Blacks at least, there is also a powerful force of peer expectation to deter anyone from breaking ranks.

But managing how, when and where players use their phones...that's impossible and one bad post in Japan and the All Blacks will be under siege, their dream of winning three consecutive tournaments so much harder to achieve.