All Blacks are the team of the people

(Rugby News Service) Thursday 15 September 2011
All Blacks are the team of the people
The fans love the All Blacks and the feeling is mutual

HAMILTON, 15 Sept. - In the world of rugby, the All Blacks are an iconic brand and almost omnipotent in New Zealand.

Such adoration from the fans can cause problems but just as the All Blacks have earned respect on the field, they also pay their dues when it comes to acknowledging the dedication of their supporters.

Even with a World Cup to win as host nation the New Zealand players have shown a preparedness to engage with their fans more than any other team in the competition.

All Blacks media manager Joe Locke said the nation's heroes are constantly connecting with the Kiwi in the street.

"On average, players appear at fan events five times per week at places including sports stores, retail outlets and hospitals,'' he said.

"They've been doing that for the past two years. It's all about finding the right balance between preparation and fan engagement."

So popular have these events become in the past weeks that players have had to resort to new tactics to escape their fans' attention.

"The support has been so good that Sonny Bill Williams had to pay a little kid 20 bucks to stop chasing him," said team manager Darren Shand.

Enthusiastic followers

Despite the protestations of their mothers, there are some awestruck kids who won't be washing for some time after towering All Black lock Sam Whitelock signed his autograph on their cheeks during a visit this week to a Hamilton pub.

Whitelock and his teammates Cory Jane and Ali Williams patiently spent 40 minutes having their photographs taken with fans of all ages. The trio then spent another 15 minutes answering questions.

"It was awesome. We really got to see how excited the fans are. There were heaps of little kids running around, but it was still nice and relaxed," Whitelock said of the night.

Added to the fan events, the Kiwis have also been very accessible to the media, holding regular press conferences and making most players and coaches available on a rotational basis.

Surge in support

Word from the All Blacks camp is that they believe there has been a surge in support from fans since the World Cup kicked off in Auckland six days ago.

"Looking at highlights of the Opening Ceremony and getting among the fans, you can see the whole country is excited," said Whitelock.

"The World Cup hype has been building up for a while, but it's just gone 'bang' this week. Everyone's pumped," said veteran lock Brad Thorn.

Assistant coach Steve Hansen said: "It's huge, isn't it? The country is going off. You can see that with ticket sales. Some thought we'd struggle to sell tickets, but now you wouldn't want to be anywhere else. It's magnificent."

All thanks to the All Black PR machine - it's a business model every team competing at RWC 2011 could follow.

RNS bw/nb/ar/rg