WELLINGTON, New Zealand — New Zealand’s All Blacks are in South Africa preparing to play without their top halfback, who was sent home weeping after getting caught cheating on his girlfriend in an airport restroom.
The scandal surrounding Aaron Smith, regarded as one of the best rugby scrumhalves in the world, has dominated media in New Zealand this week.
Prime Minister John Key waded into the furor Thursday, saying Smith — who led the All Blacks in their iconic pre-game haka during last year’s World Cup championship campaign — “clearly let himself and those that are close to him down.”
Smith was suspended for one match, missing the All Blacks’ last outing in the southern hemisphere rugby championship this Saturday in Durban against the Springboks, and faces a misconduct hearing.
Before leaving South Africa, he apologized to his girlfriend, teammates, the New Zealand Rugby Union, and All Blacks fans.
“I made a huge mistake, a huge error in judgment,” he said, in a tearful apology .
His girlfriend, in a statement released by the NZRU, asked for privacy.
The incident happened on Sept. 17 at the airport in Christchurch where, the day before, the All Blacks beat South Africa 41-13. Smith and a woman spent about 10 minutes in a restroom for those with disabilities.
An annoyed couple with children was waiting outside the bathroom, and they taped sounds and took pictures of Smith leaving the scene. That information didn’t come to light until this week, and the All Blacks took action because Smith was in team uniform on a team trip.
Key believed the incident was unusual in that the All Blacks, for more than a decade, had been good role models “for the most part.”
But Smith was benched for a test match against South Africa in 2012 after breaking a team curfew, and in 2014 he sent a naked picture of himself on a social networking app which was captured by other users.
The All Blacks have won all eight of their matches this year after beating Australia in the 2015 World Cup final. But New Zealand rugby has also had several scandals regarding player behavior.
“The (NZRU), coming off the back of a few other pretty poor PR issues in recent times, will want to send a strong message to the All Blacks that they have a high level of expectation of their behavior,” Key said. “And Aaron clearly didn’t meet it.”
Those “PR issues” have made New Zealanders question the pedestal on which rugby players are put in the country, whether players deserve star treatment, or should even be role models.
The NZRU was slammed last month after an in-house investigation couldn’t substantiate claims by a stripper that she was sexually assaulted by players from Hamilton-based team the Chiefs, at their Super Rugby postseason party in July. The investigation didn’t punish any players, but formally cautioned them.
After outrage from many who said the investigation lacked independence and transparency, NZRU chief executive Steve Tew admitted that in terms of educating players on respecting women, they had “not got it right.”
Soon after, promising player Losi Filipo was discharged without conviction for a brutal assault last year on four people, two of them women. The judge reportedly said, “Are the courts in the business of destroying people’s career prospects?”
Filipo, who was an under-19 player for Wellington, had his playing contract terminated the next day. Still many criticized apparent star treatment for rugby players.
One of the men he beat up, also a rugby player, said he was still suffering headaches. His mother said Filipo should have gone to jail.
“It’s a rugby thing. If he played hockey, basketball, or anything else, I don’t think he would have got off.”