While rugby and politics mix easily in New Zealand, the union is not without its occasional pitfalls – just ask John Key and his infamous three-way handshake at the Rugby World Cup.

Yet the occasion was recreated, seemingly inadvertently, in Tokyo as part of his successor Bill English’s visit to Japan.

NZ Rugby boss Steve Tew, Japan coach Jamie Joseph, and Japan Rugby Football Union president Tadashi Okamura locked hands on Wednesday to celebrate the news that the All Blacks will play in Japan next year, as the country prepares to host the World Cup in 2019.

Tew said the match, to be played on November 3 at a venue yet to be decided, was a chance for the team to acclimatise to the country while also strengthening the team’s commercial ties.

Yet perhaps his most interesting comments came when talking about the game’s wider value to New Zealand as a whole.

From left: Japan coach Jamie Joseph, NZ Rugby chief executive Steve Tew, and Japan Rugby Football Union president Tadashi Okamura celebrate the news that the All Blacks will play in Japan next year. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

“We’re always talking to government about the role we can playing helping push ‘Brand New Zealand’ and push our interests in trade and politics.

“The reality for us is the All Black brand is now a very important part of ‘Brand New Zealand’ and you can see that through some of the comments the Prime Minister’s made in the last 24 hours.

“We accept that responsibility, we think it’s very good for us, but it’s also a responsibility that we take very seriously.”

English himself is awake to the political power of the sport: speeches to embassy staff and at a business lunch included references to his rugby-playing Japanese nephews in Osaka.

“[They’re] very committed, amazing. They drive miles at six o’clock in the morning to go and practice…on a bare dirt paddock somewhere in the middle of a suburb, just so can they have a bit of a go at rugby – never get to play on grass, but thousands of kids are doing it.

“That’s part of the power of what’s going on for us.”

Talking to media, he said rugby was becoming “what they call sports diplomacy and that is part of the currency between governments”.

“Because they’re such a big positive brand in the world, it’s great to have that kind of brand for a small country that’s big enough to make an impact in Japan a lot of New Zealand brands probably can’t.”

The use of “rugby diplomacy” extends well beyond Japan, however.

A 2011 study from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies suggested the game was one way to strengthen NZ-US relations, former All Blacks have been sent to China to boost trade ties, while in the lead-up to the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand, government officials suggested some Fijian rugby players could be barred from attending if the country did not commit to holding democratic elections.

Prime Minister Bill English appears to be working to continue his predecessor John Key’s close relationship with the All Blacks and NZ Rugby boss Steve Tew (right). Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

Tew said NZ Rugby worked closely with a number of government departments, including NZ Trade and Enterprise, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Tourism New Zealand and Education New Zealand.

“There’s a lot of organisations in our country that are working hard to make sure we’ve got good connections around the world, rugby is one but it’s only one of the levers that can be pulled.”

While Tew is keen to accentuate the positives, the tight relationship between the All Blacks and the current government has not escaped criticism on occasion.

In 2014, Israel Dagg and Jonah Lomu fell foul of electoral laws after sharing their support for National, while the decision to host the All Blacks squad naming for the 2015 World Cup at Parliament attracted criticism from some quarters.

Key had a famously tight relationship with the All Blacks: he visited their dressing rooms after test matches, texted Dan Carter and Richie McCaw during the flag referendum, and even posed in a team jersey on the cover of a rugby magazine in the run-up to the 2014 election.

However, Tew says he is comfortable with the ties between the All Blacks and the government.

“We’re big and ugly enough to work out what’s best for us in the first instance, but look, I think there isn’t a sport in the country that wouldn’t work with the government if they had the opportunity that we have, and we’ve found that partnership works really well.”

It appears English would agree: after his meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, he offered Rugby World Cup organisers any support they needed, while the pair posed together with a ball at an official dinner.

Key may be gone, but it seems his brand of rugby diplomacy is here to stay.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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