How the Kiwis unravelled at the World Cup

The chickens were always likely to come home to roost at NZRL HQ. The only real surprise was that, when they did arrive, the harbingers of doom came in the form of Gospel-singing reserve graders.

That’s the reality of the debacle that ensued at Wellington Regional Stadium on Saturday night: the once mighty Kiwis failed to score a try against a team consisting of five first grade rugby league players of note supplemented by a bunch of back-ups, kids and never-will-bees, whose most potent weapon was a pre-match hymn.

Grim times. Times that were always on the cards, however, from the moment the NZRL issued its bone-headed proclamation that Jesse Bromwich and Kevin Proctor would not be selected for the Rugby League World Cup after disgracing the jersey in the aftermath of May’s Anzac Test.

Bungled in its execution, the panicked decision to ostracise Bromwich, the then captain, was mightily ill-conceived.

Bromwich’s offence – being caught on CCTV apparently buying and using cocaine – was dealt with by his club with a two-match ban. The NZRL wasn’t obliged to apply any further sanction. Of course, it should have – stripping of the captaincy was a minimum. Making Bromwich ride naked sitting backwards on a donkey around Mt Smart would have been acceptable. But banning him outright from a crucial event that was still six months away was just plain dumb.

Calamitously, the NZRL deemed the pressure coming from horrified stakeholders and a pissed off public as intolerable. In the space of a day, head coach David Kidwell went from stating publicly that he’d like to be able to select the pair at the world cup to announcing and attempting to own a decision to ban them that clearly wasn’t his.

Had they been thinking with any clarity – or been at all well-advised – NZRL’s decision makers would have realised that the most important factor in the decision was ‘what decision will give the Kiwis the best chance of winning the world cup’?

As Fiji wept tears of joy, all that was left for the Kiwis to do was deal with their comeuppance with good grace – something they had done magnificently a week earlier against Tonga – before shuffling off stage left into the arms of a damning external review.

Clearly, the answer to that was to have left open the option of picking Bromwich, in particular. Having come to that conclusion, they should have developed a public relations strategy to help achieve that aim. They should have indicated to the public that they would take their time with the decision and then, once things had cooled off, announced a programme of rehabilitation and a pathway to redemption.

Fatally, as it transpired, they let their public relations goal of being seen to be strong, noble and decisive take precedence over their high-performance goal of winning the world cup. Worse than that, they failed to recognise that the biggest PR win they could achieve would come from winning the world cup – and the biggest threat was bombing out in humiliating fashion.

The dark art of public relations is deservedly treated with contempt by seekers of truth, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t vital, both in forming perception and achieving success. And New Zealand continues to operate a masterclass in how not to do things, while the fallout from the Bromwich and Proctor debacle continues.

Tongan defector Jason Taumalolo may have said publicly that he backed ‘Kidwell’s’ banning of his former team-mates (“I don’t use drugs and I don’t condone it,” he said a sentence before admitting he was too pissed to take Kidwell’s phone calls after Mad Monday), but there are those who will never believe that it wasn’t a factor in his decision to lead what turned into a four-player walk-out of the Kiwis.

With Taumalolo and Manu Ma’u gone, the Kiwis suddenly found themselves extremely light on metre-eating forwards.

Making the Bromwich decision look even more ridiculous, they were forced to select Russell Packer – a player who spent a year in jail for punching a man to the ground and stomping on his head.

Packer’s rehabilitation into a better human is a nice story. In the process of rebuilding his life, he’s transformed his body. He’s now lean and mean, but he’s no Jesse Bromwich. During the world cup he looked down on energy and impact, and was directly culpable in the loss to Tonga for throwing a skip pass that was intercepted for a try when it was his job to hit the ball up.

Against Fiji, Packer was just another low impact forward in a pack that failed to make a dent on Fiji. A nation turned its lonely eyes to Jesse Bromwich, who was probably on holiday in Bali.

As Fiji wept tears of joy, all that was left for the Kiwis to do was deal with their comeuppance with good grace – something they had done magnificently a week earlier against Tonga – before shuffling off stage left into the arms of a damning external review.

Sadly, the PR disaster was only getting started.

There was nothing wrong with captain Adam Blair insisting the loss to Fiji wasn’t a disaster. There was nothing wrong with Blair – who teared-up during the press conference – saying his emotion was because he was a proud Kiwi who had been honoured to wear the jersey and work alongside some great people who had all busted their arses every step of the way.

Blair just got his audience wrong - those messages were perfect for his team-mates, in the dressing shed. At best they would be lost on a dismayed public, at worst they would be ridiculed.

Shaun Johnson, whose timing post-match was every bit as absent as it had been on the field, bizarrely fired at shot at the haters and grave-dancers who wanted to see the Kiwis fail: “Yous got what you wanted,” he said.

Quite how Johnson has got to this stage in his career without realising that the only time it is worth engaging with the people who doubt you is when you’ve proved them wrong is baffling.

Bizarrely, instead of beating a retreat when it became obvious they had made a pig’s ear of things, the Kiwis doubled down, lamenting issues including a lack of fan support and the choice of music played by in-ground DJs.

They had to be incredibly tone-deaf not to realise that, even if they had valid points, there wouldn’t be a hell of a lot of sympathy out there for them. And they appear to have entirely missed the point that, even for a national sporting side, public support isn’t a given but must rather be earned.

There should be some national sympathy for the Kiwis. Kidwell and Blair are men who quite literally have bled for  the jersey. Their players did indeed give their all for the country. As bad as their defeat by Fiji was, they did not concede a try. That was a near miracle, achieved purely through heart and determination. They were a tight, focused unit.

But they weren’t anywhere near good enough. They were badly let down by decision-making at senior management level, and left to flounder hopelessly in the glare of public scrutiny.

Former Kiwis coach Brian McClennan summed it up when he assessed Blair’s post-match interview: "I know Blairy,” McClennan said. He's just got it wrong, whoever is teaching him this, you've got it wrong.”

* Steve Deane has worked as a public relations contractor for sporting events including the Rugby League World Cup 2017 tournament.

Comments

Newsroom does not allow comments directly on this website. We invite all readers who wish to discuss a story or leave a comment to visit us on Twitter or Facebook. We also welcome your news tips and feedback via email: contact@newsroom.co.nz. Thank you.

PARTNERS