SportsAugust 31, 2023

NZ Rugby has the opportunity to change the game forever – but will they?


An organisational revolution could be on the cards for a sport that’s become ‘bogged down in boardrooms’, reports Dylan Cleaver.

Fit for purpose.

Those three words have done a lot of work in rugby circles over the past few weeks, ever since New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson went on The Breakdown this month to claim that the National Provincial Championship, the bedrock of the country’s domestic rugby since 1976, wasn’t.

“We’ve said that regardless of the Silver Lake injection of capital into the game, the [NPC] model we’ve got at the moment is not fit for purpose,” Robinson said.

The words were carefully chosen, mirroring the language used to frame the pivotal question that informed the terms of reference for the NZR’s long-awaited governance review – a review that will be tabled with a thud today.

“Is the constitution and governance structure of the New Zealand Rugby Union fit for purpose?”

All Blacks coach Ian Foster and captain Sam Cane face the media (Photo: Getty Images)

According to several key stakeholders (who spoke under the condition of anonymity), it is expected that the review will say loudly and clearly that the current model is unfit for purpose and that the time for a fully independent NZR board encompassing a “matrix” of skills is long overdue.

If the recommendations are adopted, it could usher in the most significant overhaul of the governance of the national sport since the formation of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union in 1892.

The NZR board, chaired by Dame Patsy Reddy, is made up of three appointed members, three elected members and three members nominated by the provincial unions (PUs). It is a highly politicised environment and one given to gridlock on key issues.

The entire rugby system, in fact, is bogged down in boardrooms. NZR operates on annual revenue of around $300 million. In the corporate world, that’s a pot of money that would be administered by one executive team and one board, with perhaps a handful of subsidiaries.

NZR Rugby is operating under a system of 29 chief executive and/or general managers – encompassing NZR, the 26 PUs, Māori Rugby, and NZR Commercial, the subsidiary formed in the wake of the Silver Lake equity deal – and their respective boards (that number doesn’t include key subsidiaries or stakeholders like Sanzaar’s Super Rugby clubs, secondary school sport bodies, and the Rugby Players’ Association). It is a well-worn joke that there are more rugby directorships in New Zealand than there are professional players.

As one source said, “it is a rich environment for small-business accountants but little else”.

‘From a high-performance perspective, the game has moved so far beyond the provincial unions.’ (Photo of Waikato vs Counties in a 2018 NPC match: Ross Land/Getty Images)

The review is expected to recommend changes that are fundamental to the way the national sport has been run since time immemorial. The nexus of the review is the makeup of the New Zealand Rugby board and the constitutional power of the 26 PUs.

The possibility of significant change is being welcomed in most quarters, with this quote from a high-performance stakeholder, who asked not to be named, summing up the sense of anticipation: “Is it wrong of me to feel so excited by a governance review?”

The stakeholder continued: “From a high-performance perspective, the game has moved so far beyond the PUs. They still have a critical role to play in the delivery of community rugby, but not at board level.”

The review panel is led by former Port of Tauranga chair David Pilkington and includes former Sealord chair Whaimutu Dewes, the All Blacks’ first Grand Slam-winning captain Graham Mourie, and Anne Urlwin, a corporate director of note who has also served both NZ Cricket and NZ Hockey.

The cricket connection is thought to be a significant indicator of where rugby should be headed. In 2013, NZC abruptly changed its constitution to usher in a fully independent board, essentially divorcing itself from the horse-trading of the six major associations (and 22 district associations) that had previously dominated board selection.

The Spinoff understands key cricket administrators from that period have been interviewed at length for this review, as have those who have played critical roles in large cooperatives such as Fonterra and Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu.

While the dynamics and “skills matrix” of any future NZR board will be critical, it will not in itself be a panacea for the myriad issues facing the national sport, many of which were touched upon in the Terms of Reference.

“The sport of rugby is at a crossroads. The global game faces the prospect of substantial, and rapid change which provides both challenge and opportunity for rugby in New Zealand,” the ToR stated.

These challenges included:

  • Participation and engagement
  • Health, safety and wellbeing of all involved in the game
  • Balance between community and high performance
  • Growing diversity within the game
  • The need to develop and retain talent to succeed on the global stage

It will be interesting to see how deep into the weeds of these issues the review touches upon. One source said that many of the top-line issues identified intersect with the one sector of the game that seemingly courts controversy on a weekly basis and over which NZR has little control: schoolboy rugby.

The review may augur changes to how school rugby is run. (Photo: Getty Images)

As if on cue, last week saw the ugly side of that emerge in the aftermath of a match between prestigious Wellington fee-paying Scots College and Feilding High School. The game was won on the field by Scots in contentious circumstances, lost on appeal, and then won again when the appeal was overturned on a technicality.

Scots then promptly defaulted from what was effectively a national championship quarter-final with Palmerston North Boys’ High School for the exact reasons Feilding believed Scots should have been disqualified from their match – a lack of front-row resources. Their default was also accompanied by a curiously defensive statement from Scots’ principal Graham Yule that added weight to the belief schoolboy rugby has become a plaything for the egos of adults, rather than an important bridge between junior and senior rugby.

While the Machiavellian goings-on at schoolboy level might seem incidental to the bigger issue, one source said it was in fact critical, pointing to the failure of the NZR board to include anybody with high-performance experience and “anybody who has been able to work effectively in the schools space”.

All the stakeholders talked to by The Spinoff hoped this review would enable fresh leadership to chart a coherent path forward, one where self-interest takes a back seat at the boardroom table.

For that to happen, two-thirds of the current administration would need to endorse the recommendations. As per the ToR:

“New Zealand Rugby Union Incorporated, its member Provincial Unions and the Māori Rugby Board have agreed that any recommendations arising out of this review will be considered in good faith and acted upon by them to the extent practicable. It is acknowledged that any recommendation that requires a constitutional change would need to be approved by a majority of at least two-thirds of the votes cast at a General Meeting.”

It has been noted that asking the PUs to depower themselves would be akin to asking turkeys to vote for Christmas. Indeed, there have already been rumours of back-channel lobbying to encourage PUs to vote down any recommendations, but among others there is optimism.

As one invested party said: “It doesn’t matter who you talk to in the game, especially the PUs, nobody thinks the status quo is workable.”

The Silver Lake deal has given NZ Rugby the opportunity to redefine the way the game is governed and administered.  The governance review is expected to suggest a radical departure from the current system.

All that remains to be seen is whether the ball is picked up and run with… or dropped.

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