New Zealand rugby battles for its soul after year of off-field shame

Sex scandals and violence have led to ever louder calls for a shift in game’s culture

It has been the best of seasons and the worst of seasons. The All Blacks have charged through on an astonishing winning streak, victorious for 18 Test matches . Some have even heralded the team as the best ever seen, only brought low last Saturday by a surprise loss to Ireland. But it has also been the worst of times, with New Zealanders’ devotion to their national sport wavering as disturbing sexual and violent incidents involving players at every level of the game have emerged, steadily souring public opinion.

This season, Kiwis' loyalty to a sport that can command almost evangelical fervour has been tested, with even the most ardent fans demanding a shake-up to rugby culture in New Zealand. "No rugby paddock across Aotearoa hasn't felt incredibly disappointed with the boys this season, and strongly shared the sentiment that we've had enough," former Black Fern and current Labour MP Louisa Hall told the Guardian.

“It has been a particularly confronting year . . . and the attitudes and behaviours rugby players have displayed are not reflecting New Zealand society any more. They’ve fallen behind.”

The public tide of opinion first began to turn when an exotic dancer alleged she had been sexually abused by Chiefs players at an end-of-season party in August. The woman, Scarlette, was paid to strip and nothing more. But according to her, that’s not what ended up happening. Instead, she told New Zealand media that players licked, groped and threw gravel at her while she danced, and she feared for her safety when some of the drunk men forcefully grabbed her vagina, calling her a “slut”.


An internal investigation by the club found none of the players guilty of sexual misconduct, although formal warnings were issued to all of them. Police interviewed Scarlette but no charges were laid and the dancer, who was shortly after fired by her stripping agency for breaking protocol by allowing men to touch her, has since gone to ground.

Reeked of victim-blaming

Women's groups felt the response from NZ Rugby, the club and its corporate sponsors was dismissive of the serious claims of sexual assault made, and reeked of victim-blaming. "If a woman takes her clothes off and walks around in a group of men, what are we supposed to do if one of them tries to touch her?" said Margaret Comer the chief executive of Gallagher, one of the Chiefs major sponsors, and a trustee on the board of Waikato Women's Refuge. "It's not nice and perhaps the stripper shouldn't have been hired, but I'm reluctant to say that the boys were out of line."

The Human Rights Council waded in, along with a raft of prominent female leaders, penning an open letter to NZ Rugby, titled “Love Rugby, Respect Women”, which attracted thousands of signatures. Public outrage from all sides of the political spectrum intensified, angered by NZ Rugby’s refusal to hold an independent inquiry, and by September it seemed the battle cries calling for serious cultural change within New Zealand rugby had reached a crescendo. But there was more to come.

In mid-September, 18-year-old Wellington rugby player Losi Filipo appeared in court on charges of seriously assaulting four people on a night out in Wellington, including two women. Filipo was initially discharged without conviction, in part, the presiding judge said, so he could continue his promising rugby career. The crown appealed after a public outcry, saying Filipo had received favourable treatment because of his rugby connection.

Filipo has now been sentenced to nine-months supervision, and ordered to attend drug and alcohol counselling. His contract with Wellington Rugby was terminated.

Adding to NZ Rugby's woes, last month All Black Aaron Smith entered a disabled toilet at Christchurch airport with an unnamed woman who was not his girlfriend. Someone outside the toilet recorded the explicit audio of their encounter, and Smith was stood down from the All Blacks' Test against South Africa , and issued a formal warning by NZ Rugby.

Fuel to the fire

There have been a multitude of smaller incidents too, adding fuel to the fire. A Chiefs player, Michael Allardice, was forced to make a public apology to a man after shouting a homophobic slur, and last month 24-year-old Mid Canterbury player Kolinio Tamanitoakula was charged with assault on a woman with intent to commit rape.

It is important to note these incidents are wholly unconnected, and many of the details about the circumstances surrounding them are still unknown. But the seeming lack of responsibility from the high-profile players involved, the seediness of the stories, and the lethargic response from NZ Rugby leadership, have left a bitter taste in many Kiwi mouths.

During rugby season, more than 20,000 women in New Zealand pull their hair back in ponytails, slide plastic mouth-guards inside their lips and lace up spiked boots for a Saturday game. But many thousands more Kiwi women participate in rugby from the sidelines. They slice oranges into quarters to rehydrate the ‘boys’ at half time, load fridges with slabs of Speight’s for post-game revelry, and fry $1 sausages on greasy, blackened barbecues, while horizontal rain turns playing fields into mud.

Without these women, club and provincial rugby games in New Zealand – in both the cities and rural towns – would cease to function. Film-maker Christopher Pryor admired the tireless efforts of these largely invisible women while filming his 2015 documentary The Ground We Won, in the tiny north island community of Reporoa, home to less than 500 people.

Capturing the culture

Pryor had never understood New Zealand's "obsession" with rugby, so he and partner Miriam Smith decided to spend a season capturing the culture of Reporoa Rugby Club, which included bawdy drinking games, uncomfortable initiation ceremonies – and a visit from a stripper.

“A lot of people were shocked by it [the stripper, the drinking], and said we had chosen an extreme club to portray. But that’s not true, similar rituals occur around the country,” said Pryor. “Within our wider society, we don’t have the rights of passages that we used too, and what we observed was there is still a hunger for that, for rituals that gather the community together, and unify people in tough times.”

This week, NZ Rugby announced the creation of a "respect and responsibility review" panel, to be led by the New Zealand Law Society president and employment lawyer, Kathryn Beck, as well as many sportswomen and ex-All Blacks.

"Clearly over the last few months we've had some stuff we haven't been happy about," said NZ Rugby chief executive Steve Tew, who also said the board would appoint its first female member.

“We have brought an independent group of people in and they can unearth every stone they like, we are going to be very transparent.”

But Otago University sports psychologist Steve Jackson is "cynical" about the startled, crisis-control action taken by NZ Rugby, and suspects the impetus for change has not come from within the organisation itself – but from a long season of bad PR.

“There have been calls for a shift in rugby culture for a long time, at least a decade, so I am not convinced this will be the year it happens,” said Jackson.

“More people go to rugby games than go to church; the passion for the game is extreme. But I do see a growing number of people resenting the prominent place rugby has in New Zealand’s story – that it has displaced almost any other form of culture. It is still the national sport, but Test matches aren’t selling out anymore.

“New Zealand society has changed dramatically from the days when rugby was considered the national religion.”

(Guardian Service)