SportsAugust 23, 2021

Everybody hates NZ Rugby


Inside the most tumultuous week in trans-Tasman rugby history.

One week ended with the return of a familiar piece of silverware to NZ Rugby’s trophy cabinet and the next ended with the same organisation under a cloud of opprobrium for pulling their players from a plane bound for Perth.

How they got from A to B, and where and what C now looks like, remain the most intriguing questions in the Byzantine world of southern hemisphere rugby politics.

In the short term, let’s start with C.

NZ Rugby bosses have penned a letter to their Australian counterparts rekindling the prospect of a test between the two nations in Perth in a bid to piece together the remaining shards of their relationship.

It is understood the letter restates their commitment to playing the Wallabies in Perth, a test Rugby Australia desperately needs for its own revenue streams after back-to-back Bledisloe Cup tests at Eden Park – which, predictably, resulted in the trophy being retained by New Zealand – and offers potential dates depending on whether the remaining Rugby Championship matches are to be played in Queensland or the United Kingdom.

It was an attempt to move the dialogue out of the range of the media but such is the distrust between the boards and executives of each union, that any attempt to keep the latest development under wraps was doomed to fail.

The Spinoff has spoken to multiple sources on both sides of the Tasman in the past 48 hours. What has emerged is a grim picture of two rugby countries that should be allied but instead have barely-concealed contempt for each other. Contempt which one source says can be directly attributed to the unprecedented events of last year when NZ Rugby decided to go it alone in Super Rugby and indicated they would invite just two Australian teams to join their competition.

In September last year, Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan was asked about his organisation’s relationship with NZ Rugby and said: “There is respect there but the relationship is at probably the lowest ebb it’s ever been at.” Close to a year later it’s clear that the limbo stick of caprice has descended even further. Sources, spoken to on the condition on anonymity, claimed a litany of grievances that include:

– NZ Rugby backtracking on its commitment to travel to Perth this week.

– Poor to non-existent communications between “aloof” NZR CEO Mark Robinson and “impulsive” Rugby Australia boss Andy Marinos.

– Questions around NZ Rugby director Bart Campbell’s business interests.

– General angst over what is viewed as a superiority complex on the part of NZ Rugby.

There is a deep-seated suspicion across the Tasman that NZ Rugby has been surreptitiously engineering a relocation of the Rugby Championship to the UK as it would benefit companies associated with it, according to multiple sources.

It is a charge Robinson says is “flat wrong”.

NZ Rugby CEO Mark Robinson, Chairman Brent Impey and head coach Ian Foster talk after winning a Bledisloe Cup match at Eden Park in October 2020. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

One highly connected Australian source claimed NZ Rugby had approached a UK-based events promoter in the hope that it could form a joint venture to promote and profit from any rescheduled third Bledisloe Cup match against Australia at an iconic stadium such as Wembley. In essence, the fear was that after pulling out of Australia’s home test, NZ Rugby was seeking to be the beneficiary of a back-up plan that could involve Campbell’s Australian-based Left Field Live agency and TEG, an Australian-based ticketing and events company. TEG was purchased in 2019 by Silver Lake, the private equity firm NZ Rugby has long courted, leading to a breakdown in the relationship with the New Zealand Rugby Players’ Association (NZRPA).

Robinson said TEG was involved in the proposed relocation of the Rugby Championship to Europe, but it was not an NZ Rugby deal. “We are not working with TEG ourselves,“ he said. “They have come to the table to work directly with Sanzaar on the potential for a European section of the Rugby Championship.”

Robinson said he was happy to clarify Campbell’s position, and rejected out of hand any claims that scenarios were being cooked up to benefit Left Field Live and, by extension, NZ Rugby at the expense of Rugby Australia.

“We are working with him in DC, we are not working with him in the UK,” Robinson said of Campbell, who joined the NZ Rugby board last year. “To date, Bart and his associated companies have worked on two matches in the USA (2014 versus the USA and 2016 versus Ireland) and the 2017 match against the Barbarians in the UK.”

In 2019 Campbell’s company secured the rights to send an All Blacks XV into emerging markets such as the US and Japan. It was a commercial initiative with a high-performance element, expanding the pool of players exposed to international rugby. “The terms were agreed by commercial negotiation that was underpinned by a guaranteed return to NZ Rugby. That contract has not been able to take effect due to Covid,” Robinson said.

“As for All Blacks matches outside the World Rugby window, NZ Rugby either deals directly with national unions – such as Wales this year or Australia for the third Bledisloe Cup test – or runs a selection process for the extra tests matches where a number of parties present their interest.”

Robinson said Campbell was not on the sub-committee that determined the successful bidder and recused himself from any board discussions in this area. Campbell’s sports marketing expertise and exposure were well known before he was appointed to the board, Robinson said, and his portfolio of interests extended beyond rugby.

“The global networks and relationships he brings are a positive to NZ Rugby. If NZ Rugby has ever elected to take an offer from his company, it does so on the basis that the terms are in the best interests of NZ Rugby.” One source who is familiar with some of the discussions taking place suggested that concerns over Campbell were “misplaced paranoia” and that Left Field Live’s financial interests, if any, were likely to be contained to a potential make-up game against as-yet-undetermined opposition in the UK should the All Blacks not be able to travel to Washington DC to play the USA.

What this source did agree on, however, was that Campbell’s presence on management calls had fuelled speculation and discomfort in Australia. While Campbell’s presence, and indeed Silver Lake through its TEG holding, could be seen as peripheral issues, at the heart of the most recent dispute is the decision by NZ Rugby to not send the All Blacks to Perth this weekend in preparation for the test against the Wallabies – a test which NZ Rugby had already asked to be postponed by a week. An already uncertain Rugby Championship schedule was thus thrown into further disarray.

Rugby Australia have claimed it was a unilateral decision that blindsided them. This has angered NZ Rugby, who believe they had communicated their intentions clearly – which apparently included a midweek call from All Black captain Sam Cane to his counterpart Michael Hooper to outline their situation – and had left open the possibility of travelling until the last possible minute. There’s a feeling at NZ Rugby that in this instance ‘lack of consultation’ is simply code for ‘I don’t like what I’m hearing’.

Dave Rennie at Eden Park on August 14 (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

NZ Rugby claims its hand was forced by the uncertainty surrounding logistics for the remaining rounds of the Rugby Championship. It issued a press release early Friday afternoon that detailed the cancellation of its planned All Blacks home tests against South Africa (as well as the Black Ferns’ tests against the Wallaroos) citing government advice. Burying the lede, it also outlined its decision not to travel to Perth as originally planned for what was expected to be a 60,000 seat sell-out next Saturday evening at Optus Stadium.

Marinos and Wallabies coach Dave Rennie voiced their disappointment publicly, with the latter claiming his counterpart had given no indication that a no-show was on the cards and that Wallabies players only found out through social media. In response, Robinson denied the decision was made unilaterally.

Sources close to the conversations say Rugby Australia was told by Robinson that they had until early Friday afternoon to guarantee the remaining Rugby Championship fixtures could be hosted in Queensland. Rugby Australia asked for more leeway as Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk was largely supportive of the concept, but state officials required more time to work through logistics. That leeway was never given.

As late as Thursday last week, players were urgently seeking Covid-19 vaccinations to comply with travel requirements. Some could not get their second shot until 6.30pm on Friday night, but were still apparently willing to travel once cleared. Multiple players have responded to questions regarding the week leading up to NZ Rugby’s decision. One has confirmed that NZRPA’s boss Rob Nichol addressed the team and some of the players’ partners after Sunday’s second test victory at Eden Park. Nichol told them that they had to be prepared to travel to Perth and that they could be away from family until December. One player told The Spinoff they “were bloody disappointed” when informed of the cancellation on Friday, another said “it made sense” to stay in New Zealand.

All of them are acutely aware there is a section of the public who think they’re being precious; that plenty of other teams and athletes have made extraordinary sacrifices over the past two years without this apparent posturing. That is an optics issue that many executives agonised over in the hours leading to crunch time.

At approximately 2.45pm on Friday, New Zealand Rugby advised the media of its decision not to send the All Blacks to Perth on the planned charter flight scheduled to leave late Saturday afternoon, effectively dismissing Rugby Australia’s plea for more time. An Australian source says the decision was made before a planned conference call between all four Sanzaar CEOs. It’s not known whether that call ever proceeded but it’s believed a further call is scheduled for tonight.

Andy Marinos, Hamish McLennan, NSW Minister Stuart Ayres and former Wallaby Morgan Turinui at the Rugby Championship 2021 Fixture last year (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

South Africa Rugby CEO Jourie Roux claimed his nation was willing and able to host the remainder of the tournament, but NZ Rugby stood alone in declining that opportunity. “I value the relationships we have and can understand the frustrations and why they exist but the world is moving too fast to get wrapped up in suspicions,” Robinson said of NZ Rugby’s relationship with Australia. “Our primary concern has to be to focus on the future and to create value for rugby in this part of the world.”

Robinson pointed to the fact new board chair Stuart Mitchell and McLennan were in “semi-regular” dialogue and had found alignment on issues around the Olympic sevens and the women’s game as proof the relationship would prevail.

There is little doubt that NZ Rugby was taken aback by the hostility. The fact that Argentina and South Africa had cancelled their charter flight to Australia after being denied access to New South Wales to quarantine, felt like compelling evidence to NZ Rugby that the pause button needed to be pressed. If they were hoping to get support from those two unions, however, they forgot that, according to another source, the disgruntlement harboured by South Africa and Argentina closely mirrors that of Australia’s. In other words, three of the four Sanzaar unions place the blame for the organisation’s dysfunction squarely at the door of NZ Rugby.

“With everything that went on last year there was a huge amount of frustration,” Robinson said. “There has been less contact time with South Africa and Argentina and we’re talking essentially about the international game and it’s hard at the moment when we’re living through another Covid-impacted year.”

While it seems an entirely reasonable move by NZ Rugby to await certainty around scheduling, its relationship with its Sanzaar partners is untenable as it stands. South Africa Rugby is believed to be wholly committed to a northern hemisphere solution to its ongoing solvency, while Argentina’s “junior partner” status affords them little clout around the negotiating table. Then there is the spectre of Silver Lake, and TEG’s entrance has only caused further suspicion that NZ Rugby are aiding the cause of the private equity firm ahead of its own partners.

With Argentina’s status unknown and South Africa’s future in the north, NZ Rugby and Rugby Australia are left to form a solid southern hemisphere foundation in the face of Europe’s expansionist ambitions (France alone has 28 professional rugby clubs and will again begin to hoover up talent from both sides of the Tasman as the pandemic recedes.)

That foundation was shown to be built upon sand when NZ Rugby tried to take unilateral control over the future of Super Rugby last year. They will frame that as acting decisively in a bid to redefine and reinject value into the Southern Hemisphere club landscape, but what it achieved was an atmosphere of mistrust that has led to angst and something close to enmity over the past week.

This trans-Tasman rugby “partnership” is desperately in need of an off-field win. NZ Rugby are seemingly in no mood to subsidise Australia’s professional ambitions, while Rugby Australia believes those ambitions are mutually beneficial. It’s a stalemate in which self-interest appears to be the only prize. A win-at-all-costs attitude may be admirable in sport, but you have to understand what competition you are in. After blowing up Sanzaar in 2020, the question is whether NZ Rugby is committed to going it alone from here and at what cost to the regional game .

The next edition of Super Rugby may well test that theory further. “In terms of Super Rugby, clearly there are challenges, but we will get there I think,” Robinson said.

As has been the recent theme, exactly where “there” is remains the billion-dollar question.

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