Wellington - While the All Blacks are reaching new heights,
recent off-field scandals have left New Zealand Rugby struggling to maintain
the sport's image, particularly with women.
The NZR admits the game needs to change its macho culture
after a series of player incidents involving strippers, street violence and
Pundits have dubbed it "the season from hell",
distracting attention from the All Blacks' bid this weekend to set a new record
of 18 consecutive Test victories.
It is an uncomfortable position for rugby administrators,
who are used to New Zealanders backing the sport with an almost religious
New Zealand Herald rugby writer Gregor Paul said the
backlash had been exacerbated by NZR's poor handling of various crises.
"They have been accused of being lenient and guilty of
condoning abusive behaviour by doing so little to punish it," he wrote
"They have had their failings pointed out by just about
everyone, but most tellingly by some of the most influential women in the
The problems began in August, when a stripper known as
Scarlette said she was abused and demeaned at a Chiefs end-of-season "Mad
The Chiefs initially suggested her word could not be trusted
because of her occupation, then an internal NZR review dismissed her claims and
cleared the players.
"A lot of the language immediately after the Chiefs
incident was around victim blaming and shaming," Human Rights Commissioner
David Rutherford said at the time.
The NZR soon found itself in the spotlight again over its
response to a teenage star's violent rampage on a Wellington street.
The player, Losi Filipo, savagely attacked four people,
including two women, but escaped conviction because a judge said it might harm
his rugby career.
Officials at first stood by Filipo, only to perform an
embarrassing U-turn and agree to terminate his Wellington Rugby contract as
public outrage grew.
There were further blows to the game's image when one
provincial player was jailed for masturbating in public and another was charged
with intent to commit rape.
In such a heated atmosphere, the timing of an indiscretion
by All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith could not have been worse.
The 54-Test veteran was seen entering a disabled toilet
cubicle with a mystery woman at Christchurch Airport while he was travelling
with the national team the day after a recent Test against South Africa.
While there was no hint of criminal wrongdoing, Smith's
actions was deemed "serious misconduct" that damaged the reputation
of the All Blacks and its sponsors.
He was suspended for one Test and voluntarily stood down
from another - this Saturday's blockbuster match against Australia where his
team-mates are chasing the record win.
In response to its recent woes, the NZR is setting up an
independent panel to review "respect and responsibility" in the game.
Politician Louisa Wall, a former rugby international once
named New Zealand women's player of the year, said cultural change needed to
begin at the top.
She said the NZR needed to include women at board level and
take their contribution to the game seriously.
"The way that women have traditionally been viewed,
they're in the kitchen preparing the food, they wash the uniforms," she
told Wellington's Dominion Post newspaper.
"We're not seen as the administrators, the coaches, the