Rugby struggles with its superstars
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Recent events have crystallised a particular thought in my mind: rugby union culture doesn’t fully understand how to guide, promote and maintain superstars.
Quade Cooper is only the most recent example of this. You could probably look in the direction of Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor as well to see the way rugby handles its stars.
Watch other sports around the world and see the difference in star management. They operate in a way that makes the most of the superstar drawing potential without exploding in a cloud of controversy or resorting to passive aggressive pot shots.
The NBA has Kobe Bryant (the talented villain), LeBron James (the lovable, naive villain – somewhat similar to Quade Cooper in terms of media savvy) and Kevin Durant (the all-American hard working star, like Richie McCaw in terms of dead-bat work in public).
Only two years ago LeBron was the most hated athlete in the USA for his poorly handled free-agent decision. It was admittedly horrible and cast a bad light in a number of ways, as such he could have easily been consigned to the too hard to handle basket, but he still enjoys the support of the league. The NBA makes the most of their marketable, talented stars.
An example in the recent history of rugby is The Roar’s own David Campese – a prime case of the rugby fraternity not knowing quite how to handle a superstar.
He is outspoken, sure of himself and not afraid to tell it how he sees it. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing that a well known, talented player is willing to open their mouth and answer questions.
For Campese, unfortunately, this two-sided coin has loomed over him well after his playing career. It has lead to one of Australia’s most marketable, prominent and talented players spending a lot of his time away from the roots of the Australian game.
Don’t misread what happened on Fox Sports recently; Cooper wasn’t only answering the questions the interviewers posed, he was trying to answer questions posed by the public. His, possibly naive, natural bent is to play for the fans and to enjoy fan support.
In a world where sport has at least one leg firmly planted in the ‘entertainment’ category, O’Connor is derided for wanting to expand his ‘brand’.
Without only trying to play devil’s advocate, I would say that he has perhaps worked out something faster than the rugby fraternity has. O’Connor clearly stands out within rugby because he has those ambitions. That is a problem in itself.
Rugby struggles to maintain its brand, let alone any ambition of expanding it. Because of this O’Connor receives “how dare you?” from all parties for making the most of his opportunity.
As we currently see in the world of media – where the feel of paper in the fingertips is becoming less viable – old institutions need to adapt and learn how to conduct business in the 21st century.
The obvious dove-tail for this argument is to look at the NRL and see how they promote stars and the way it builds the game.
Like rugby union, forwards regularly decide the outcome of matches, at least to a point. But it is the showmanship of players like Morris twins, Glen Stewart, Billy Slater, Greg Inglis and most recently Ben Barba that drive viewership and headlines.
This strategy isn’t without its faults, but rugby needs to find a way to embrace this further.
The last time the NSW Waratahs were forced to handle genuine super star expectations they didn’t exactly come out with the sun shining on them; fans (me) included. Kurtley Beale was rushed into a Super Rugby side at a very young age. He was plumped up as a saviour and played some remarkable rugby.
As teams worked him out and the inevitable period of needing to expand his repertoire took hold, he was derided in the media, by fans (by rugby). Eventually he moved on. In a short career for the Wallabies and Rebels he has already had as many game-breaking performances in a jersey that is not Waratahs-blue.
It should be noted that the Queensland Reds may have begun to walk this path. Off the field they have made changes and the fans have reciprocated the arrangement. Memberships haven’t been higher in a long, long time – if ever – at Suncorp.
It is often shouted from the rooftops that the Reds averaged higher attendance rates last year than the Brisbane Broncos. The caveat would be that it is across fewer games, but the achievement is still noteworthy.
I don’t have any doubts that the Reds management would attribute a lot of the up-tick to winning (it certainly helps) but would not discount the influence of star players in the trend.
The most memorable faces on the Reds team are Cooper, Will Genia, Digby Ioane and James Horwill (every team needs it’s Richie McCaw/Cameron Smith/Stirling Mortlock).
I would submit that between their obvious on-field performance and the placement of their images off the field, it is not an accident on the management’s account that they are the most memorable personalities.
Given all the general distaste for social media in rugby circles it is interesting to note that Ewen McKenzie has allowed Cooper and others to continue using twitter and other platforms to a certain degree even on game day.
Cooper has admitted that he would be happy to continue playing in Queensland. There has to be something to this feeling. After Cooper’s outburst the Queensland office was quick to distance themselves from the claims but at the same time support (read: not defend) him as a player.
On top of that I think give the relative strength he brings to the Reds, on and off the field, the ARU would still recoup the investment made in their part of his contract allowing him to continue playing there – even if not with the Wallabies.
I might be just another naive youngster, similar to the players themselves, who hasn’t really earned the right to try and have this discussion. People of a certain age may want to take my opinions with a grain of salt. After all, I am young enough that a portion of my iPod playlist does include rap music.
Understand that this isn’t an attempt to portion the blame in any particular way. I don’t have access to enough information to even begin to do this. The rugby states, ARU, clubs, media and fans all have a say in the perception and understanding of the game and the place within that framework for legitimate stars.
I do believe an open discussion around these issues could help rugby move towards a healthy state where high profile players are in the best position to continue to attract new fans to the game.
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