This week the All Black scrum half, Aaron Smith, voluntarily stood down from the third Bledisloe Cup match against Australia as a punishment for his indiscretions with a female, who was not his girlfriend, in a disabled toilet at Christchurch Airport. In effect what this means is that after missing a dead rubber in South Africa, Smith has voluntarily taken himself out of a potentially history making match against Australia. On face value this may seem a genuine act of contrition on the part of the Highlander’s player but for Smith, and New Zealand rugby in general, there are a few questions that still need to be answered.
Are Smith’s actions as serious as the media storm surrounding them suggest?
In today’s promiscuous society I would argue they are not, indeed you could argue his only crime was getting caught. But Smith is a role model here in New Zealand, part of arguably the greatest team the country has ever produced in a nation where Rugby is more than a religion and as such he should be acting in a manner which befits his station. Smith, and his fellow All Blacks, are paid more than handsomely for playing a sport they love and in return we, the paying public, should expect more than just an eighty-minute performance once a week. Imagine what the dad who, taking his kid down to watch the Highlanders to Forsyth Bar must now be thinking after he told his child that if they work hard they could one day be like Aaron Smith?
Do Smith’s actions reflect poorly on New Zealand Rugby?
Simply, yes. Taken in isolation, the fact one of their players was unable to keep his pants on is a problem no doubt encountered by many a club coach as they have taken their young charges on tour but for New Zealand rugby this is not an isolated instance, over the last few months the behaviour of Kiwi rugby players have been brought into question on more than one question. Last month a talented young Wellington Lion’s player was in court charged with assaulting four people, including two women, and earlier in the year the Chiefs’ players were accused of inappropriately touching a stripper who had been hired for their end of year party. Smith’s actions, you may argue, are therefore being judged in a harsher climate than they might have been but in contrast is this the beginning of a worrying trend where rugby players begin to act like their spoilt, over paid, football cousins in Europe?
What action is the New Zealand Rugby Union taking over these incidents?
Not a lot. In the case of the Chiefs’ end of season party the NZRU’s found the allegations of sexual assault could not be proven, findings which have been widely condemned here in New Zealand, and it appears that, for the NZRU at least, this is the end of the matter. There seems to be no condemnation that a stripper was hired for an end of season party or the message this sends out about these men’s views on women in general. It seems that dad can’t take his kid to watch the Chiefs either! The official statement in regard to the Wellington Lion’s player is that his contract has been terminated by mutual consent which, whilst I appreciate the player in question did not want to lose his job, means that the perpetrator has had a say in his sentence. Why? If the club believes the player to be at fault they should have taken action not held a conversation which in itself leads me to the next question.
Why is Aaron Smith deciding his own punishment?
The statement this week that Smith has stood himself down from the Australia match does demonstrate Smith, at least on the surface, recognises he has done something wrong but instead of the player standing himself shouldn’t the NZRU be suspending the player themselves? If the player’s actions are deemed worthy of censure, then the censure should come from his employers and not the player himself. In deciding to let Smith drop himself the NZRU are in effect washing their hands of the incident, a behaviour they are all too familiar with. The suits who preside over the game in this country are happy to take centre stage when the All Blacks are winning but when the shit is about to hit the fan they quickly manage to dissolve into the background.
What is more important to the New Zealand Rugby Union, legacy or results?
You could argue that these two are intertwined. This All Black team, no matter what its players get up to, are going to be remembered as one of, if not the greatest sports teams of all time. Their record over the last six or seven years has been nothing short of phenomenal and list of rugby legends who have appeared for the All Blacks would no doubt fill many places in an all-time greatest ever rugby XV. But one of the joys of watching rugby here in New Zealand is the special relationship between the players and the fans. Does this generation really want to be the ones who breaks this relationship? If not then indiscretions, like Smith’s, must be seen to be properly dealt with, otherwise what is that dad going to be able to tell his children?
Would Smith not playing really be a blow to the All Blacks?
As a rugby fan who has grown up disliking the All Blacks, to me they are the Manchester United of the oval ball game, this is the hardest one for me to answer because I know my answer would have to be no. In TJ Perenara, think of a more annoying Gary Neville, the All Blacks have a more than able deputy who is amongst the best in the world and both in the pack and outside him they have players who are simply world class. Ally the fact that both the Australians and the teams they will play on their American and European tour are probably the weakest they have been in years and it is safe to say that if the All Blacks do lose in the near future it will not be down the fact that Aaron Smith isn’t in the team. Bearing this in mind wouldn’t it be better for the game’s legacy here in New Zealand, its reputation overseas and for the player himself, if the NZRU decided to make Smith illegible for the remaining All Black games this year? If they had the balls to do this it would show their fans they care more about the game than a few results and it would allow Smith’s deputies to stake a claim, and hopefully provide competition in the future. It would also send a warning to the rest of the rugby playing fraternity that they are expected to behave like role models and most importantly it would give Smith time to get his own house in order and give him time to reflect on his actions. Which leads me to my final question:
Is Aaron Smith really being punished?