While we’re still in the conference stage of the 2018 Super Rugby competition it’s too early to say whether the Australian franchises can atone for their woeful 2017 showing, when they failed collectively to chalk up a single victory against a New Zealand side, home or away. And we won’t know if the Wallabies have raised their game, either, until June’s three-match series against Ireland, the country which recently snuck ahead of us in the world rankings. But I’m not sure Alan Jones is right to say, as he did in last weekend’s Oz, that Australian Rugby has more important things to worry about right now than what leading Wallaby try-scorer and devout Christian Israel Folau’s thinks about the posthumous prospects of gay people. Ordinarily, a single ill-considered player tweet would present fewer problems for selectors than a punch-up in a Gold Coast nightclub or a bit of high-spirited, end-of-tour dwarf-throwing. But with less than 18 months to go before the next Rugby World Cup the biggest challenge facing Rugby Australia’s new CEO Raelene Castle is retaining key sponsors, not least because one of those sponsors happens to be an organisation which has been a very public supporter of same-sex marriage and indeed all things LGBTI etc., most recently telling its staff to use gender-neutral terminology when talking to customers. Having taken such a firm stand on such matters – to the point of losing the patronage of an even greater Aussie sporting icon, Margaret Court – Qantas can hardly ignore the tsunami of social media outrage which the Folau ‘HELL’ tweet has triggered.
Meanwhile, the diversity agenda which Ms Castle has promised to pursue in her new role – a highlight of her first press conference being that ‘it doesn’t matter what race, creed, colour or gender you are, you can go to a Rugby club and feel welcome’ – presents her with a dilemma not dissimilar to the one which faced the Labor party when the biggest blocks of No votes in the Marriage Equality survey turned out to be ethnic minorities: On the one hand she can’t ask our Izzy to disavow a fundamental tenet of his faith; on the other hand she can’t turn a deaf ear to what many people (including, presumably, many Qantas employees) consider hate speech.
But just as the Wallabies might improve their World Cup chances by studying the tactics of the All-Blacks, their principal backer might also look across the Tasman for a master class in smart sponsor behaviour.
Two years ago, Bank of New Zealand, which funds all the Kiwi Super Rugby sides, would have been entitled to complain in the strongest possible terms when the Auckland Blues allowed one of its players to cover the BNZ logo on his shirt with tape before taking the field. The player in question, Sonny Bill Williams, did this not because the bank had bounced one of his cheques (Sonny Bill Williams? – no bank is that big), but because as well as being a convert from league to union he has also recently switched religious codes, and in the course of becoming a Muslim has learnt that the Koran’s position on the charging of interest – and on the organisations which do it – is not that different to its position on pork scratchings and bikinis.
Instead of complaining about this public snub, however, BNZ very sensibly issued a statement which said, in effect, ‘bro, it’s none of our business’, thereby avoiding incurring the displeasure of the entire population of the country – and quite possibly a fatwa.
Luckily for Bank of New Zealand, Sonny Bill is currently the only Muslim playing Super Rugby. But if the people running New Zealand Rugby share Raelene Castle’s commitment to diversity and inclusivity this will soon change, and it won’t be long before The Blues, Hurricanes, Chiefs and Highlanders can all rely on the enthusiastic support of the Muslim communities of Auckland, Wellington, Waikato and Otago. But if Christchurch even has a Muslim population, I suspect it will take more than intelligent sponsors to persuade them to cheer for a team called The Crusaders.
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