an interesting idea…

March 23rd, 2014

This news is three days old, already, but I missed it on the day and only came across the story via an NZ Herald editorial published yesterday, but which I didn’t have time to read until today. It’s an interesting idea, boost New Zealand’s profile in China by having the All Blacks visit, but I’m not convinced. It’s not much of a story, little more than yet another of the “Oh, look, John Key!” puff pieces the NZ media has gotten so good at, and it seems to be based on even less, just a throwaway comment by John Key on seeing the China Agricultural University rugby team perform a haka:

The Prime Minister made the comment after he was greeted with a haka by a rugby team at the China Agriculture University (CAU), where rugby is a popular sport.

He said he believed the All Blacks should visit at some point.

“It’s the same thing we see happen in a number of other countries. They play exhibition games and I know the Rugby Football Union … are thinking a lot about this market.”

Mr Key said the CAU rugby team should travel to New Zealand to play universities. “I think those guys were good. They were big and strong and young and fit.”

And that’s about half the story right there.

Now, I think it’s a great idea for the CAU rugby team to visit NZ. Especially if they’re going to go performing haka for visiting NZ dignitaries, then they need to go to the source and understand what it is they’re doing. And any other Chinese rugby team, too. Just so long as they get decently-matched opponents. There’s also nothing wrong with having the All Blacks visit China.

But there is a really huge problem with all this. Rugby is not big in China – there you go, there’s my entry for understatement of the decade. Using rugby as a base for NZ-China sports diplomacy would mean NZ needing to start its marketing from a baseline of near zero awareness. For starters, rugby shares a Chinese name with American football, and apparently other codes with similarly-shaped balls. Every time students ask me what sports are popular in New Zealand, I tell them rugby, they reach for their dictionaries, and then it takes several minutes to stop them constantly repeating “Oh, American football” so that I can explain that the two forms of “olive ball” (literal translation of the Chinese name – 橄榄球/gǎnlǎnqiú, gǎnlǎn meaning olive, qiú meaning ball) are two completely different sports. But even then I find it nearly impossible to persuade people that rugby and American football are not the same. The overwhelming majority of Chinese people know nothing about either of these two sports beyond the fact that something called gǎnlǎnqiú exists and is played in faraway countries – and the USA, being so big, rich, powerful and the object of so many people’s obssessions gets a lot more brand recognition than any of the rugby powerhouses, therefore gǎnlǎnqiú is more likely to bring to mind men in tights, huge shoulder pads and helmets than rugby.

Also, mention “New Zealand” to any random Chinese person on the Mainland streets and if they know anything about the place, they’ll happily talk till the cows come home about beautiful natural scenery, sheep, and milk. It is exceedingly rare that anybody will mention any sport. The sports NZ is strong in simply do not register on Chinese radar. Not only that, but it is my experience that when exposed to sports NZ is strong in, Chinese people tend to think we’re a bit, well, mad.

And if the Rugby Football Union (who was Key referring to there? The NZRU? The IRB?) is as interested in the China market as Key seems to think, then they’ve got a hell of a lot of work to do not just raising rugby’s profile [ahem] building almost from scratch a profile for rugby, but also marking out a clear differentiation in Chinese minds between rugby and that other code involving men in tights, huge shoulder pads, and helmets. For example.

So I dunno, interesting idea, but it’s an idea that’s going to need a hell of a lot of work building up a foundation for it to have even the slightest chance of being noticed outside China’s infinitisemally small rugbyhead community.

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