- Lions' Ruan Combrinck challenges Crusaders' George Bridge. Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

Whenever there’s a major international sport fixture, like yesterday’s Super Rugby final, there’s usually a fascinating parallel game that gets played.

As long as fans have squared off and opinions have raged, newspapers have got in on the act. For years, they’ve adopted the role of cheerleader, almost always unbidden and with various results.

The understanding is simple: get behind the local team and do what you can to unsettle the opposition.

And it’s often worked. Many coaches have famously clipped out cuttings and posted them on change-room walls as motivation. 

There’s no easier way to pump up a player. Short of shoving the offending article up the reporter’s nose, the best response is to produce a top performance. Many do.

The finest example of this played out in New Zealand recently. The national daily (The New Zealand Herald) made no attempt to offer fair and balanced coverage. 

From day one, its modus operandi was to get under the skin of the touring British and Irish Lions.

There was a charming twist, too, given that the Lions coach was a New Zealander. No worries.

Every day brought forth a fresh insult, calling them no-hopers or boring. 

The little game reached its nadir when a graphic artist plonked a red nose on Warren Gatland, the coach, which was dutifully published on the back page. 

The inference was clear: Gatland was a clown.

He wasn’t pleased. The wonder is that Gatland didn’t bite the head off the local Herald correspondent.

In this image made from video, British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland wears a red nose to the post match press conference following the third and final rugby test between the British and Irish Lions and the All Blacks at Eden Park in Auckland. The game ended in a 15 all draw and the series was tied at one test all. Photo: Alan Gibson/AP

 He saved his best for last, coaching his team to a rousing drawn series, against most expectations, and prancing into the final post-match conference tartly wearing a red nose.

There ought to have been much egg on faces all round the Herald offices. No one minds a bit of parochial journalism - some even expect it - but the paper's coverage was consistently spiteful. It wasn't clever or witty.

It was so nasty that even a dyed-in-the-wool Kiwi hero like Sean Fitzpatrick professed his deep embarrassment.

When it comes to winding up an entire nation, there is nothing like a lazy stereotype. It would be too easy to take shots at New Zealand, a tiny, insular country obsessed with rugby and little else (if you exclude the sheep). You get my drift.

So it was entirely predictable that a couple of Kiwi reporters got on their high horses about the appointment of Jaco Peyper as referee for yesterday’s big game, creating the sort of uproar that was absent when one of their own, Glen Jackson, got the appointment last year.

New Zealand reporters do tub-thumping like few others. Not only do they align themselves with the All Blacks with almost compulsive zeal, their one-eyed approach is generally at the exclusion of anyone else’s virtues. 

Other teams never beat the All Blacks. Rather, it’s usually a case of the All Blacks losing.

Kiwi reporters have done this for years. The bleating still hasn’t died down about “Suzie”, the mystery waitress from 1995. One reporter even dredged up Laurie Mains this week, who unsurprisingly railed against the Lions, his former team.

The criticism of Peyper, one of the world's pre-eminent officials, reached hysterical levels. The Herald - who else? - was leading the dummy-spitting, damning the appointment before the official had pulled on his socks. 

It was a transparent attempt to unsettle him, although he’s smart enough to know better. They also needed someone to blame if the wheels came off.

Interestingly, team campaigning is not a game South African newspapers tend to play a whole lot, although the Durban and Cape Town press corps have been known to take a few potshots over the years.

Quite apart from not having a robust tradition of tabloid newspapers (in the ribald sense), our sensitivities tend to be far different. 

Local scribblers are more gentle and measured. And with everyone desperate for access, there’s a fair bit of risk involved in annoying the wrong person. So they tend not to do it.

With newspapers ravenous for eyeballs, it’s no surprise that some play this game in a desperate attempt to stand out. The real scoop is when they get it right by being droll and inspired. Anything else is just whingeing.

Sunday Tribune

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