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How Creatives Can Help New Zealand Rugby's Image Issues

David John, Rugby - The Winners.
The relationship between rugby and the arts is....complicated. But Andrew Wood reckons New Zealand Rugby can help our creatives - and vice versa.


The nation’s love affair with rugby may not be what it once was – and there will always but some that loathe its cultural dominance.

But at a time when New Zealand Rugby and the All Blacks’ image has never been more under the spotlight, Andrew Wood has seen an opportunity for the arts and rugby to form a partnership that could benefit both parties.


Compared to the arts, you’ll only rarely hear complaints about public money being spent on rugby in Aotearoa.

In 2011 we spent $1.2 billion on investments backing the Rugby World Cup, despite predictions it would only make around $700 million in direct economic returns. In 2020, NZR received $7.3 million in COVID wage subsidies with nary a murmur.

And yet it seems we can’t get through a month without the so-called ‘NZ Taxpayer’s Union’ or Jason Walls having a histrionic meltdown over public money being spent on culture.

We may pause to relish young Master Walls being hoisted on his own petard when he recently went after microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles for appearing in a documentary that had received a piddling $20,000 of public funding.

Silly, silly boy. No apology yet either.

Surely, I thought to myself, there must be a way of bringing rugby and the arts together in such away as the arts can bask in the public adoration of rugby and rugby can benefit from the cultural and spiritual enrichment of the arts.

When the arts do get involved with rugby, it’s usually to open the game, or to question the assumptions of its hypermasculine culture, such as Greg McGee’s 1980 play Foreskin’s Lament, or poignant art installations by Grant Lingard. Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū has a wonderful display of such work by Lingard as part of their current long-term hang.

Grant Lingard, Mummy’s boy – smells like team spirit. Image: Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū.

And of course, there’s Simon Richardson’s callipygian portrait of Anton Oliver from behind. Magnificent painting. Magnificent arse.

The less said about that Weta workshopped atrocity on Wellington’s waterfront, the better. It’s like something out of Mussolini’s wettest dream. And the whole Adidas ‘posters infused with All Blacks DNA’ thing was a bit peculiar.

And then I found out that in 2012, Welsh playwright and poet Owen Sheers had been appointed the Welsh Rugby Union’s as official writer-in-residence for the year.

Basically, this involved following the Welsh squad in the build-up to matches, visiting the local clubs, on a stipend of £10,000 funded by the Arts Council of Wales.

The position, which ran until 2014, was open to other artists and creators, chosen independently by the WRU, though information on whether appointments were made proves surprisingly difficult to ascertain, so I’m guessing not.

Blimey! I thought. What a bloody good idea. NZR should have an artist in residency programme.

 What better way to give creative practitioners unfettered access to a core part of the national psyche? Sort of like having an official national war artist.

The artists of Aotearoa love black – look at McCahon, Hotere, Walters. Black is the uniform of both our national rugby team and the New Zealand art world.

And given the unbridled bungling of NZR’s once dominant international image to that of an organization that that finds itself constantly offside with its true stakeholders – the public – surely working with creatives has never looked so appealing.

Can you imagine the story to be told by having a creative working with the All Blacks right now? There is angst, rage, mental health issues at play, not to mention the potential redemption arc from coach Ian Foster (or more likely, his successor).

You don’t need to know the difference between a haka and a haiku to know that NZR boss Mark Robinson would benefit from an injection of creativity right now.

No one else has been able to drag a personality out of the current regime – surely an artist is as well placed as anyone to achieve this challenging feat.

But why stop with the All Blacks?

Also in 2012, artist Jeremy Houghton was appointed resident artist to the Northampton Saints rugby team, specifically to help fundraise for their charity foundation helping disadvantaged youth in Northamptonshire (below).

Houghton has form for this sort of thing, having previously held the roles of official artist for the London 2012 Olympics and multiple Wimbledon championships. Leeds Rugby also has an art residency attached to their foundation.

Admittedly, I haven’t dug much deeper than that, but I’m assuming these aren’t isolated cases and that other UK clubs also have similar positions.

Who better than artists to give the Crusaders a much-needed brand overhaul?

This is absolutely something we should do. The ancient Greek poet Pindar made an entire career out of writing odes celebrating athletes.

What better way to honour our rugby players and explore new facets of why the game means so much to Aotearoa, than by letting our creatives do what they do best – and get paid for it?

I’m free. Ta.