'I can't guarantee we're not going to lose jobs': The real effect COVID-19 had on Kieran Read and Counties Manukau
As Counties Manukau prepared for their 2020 NPC season, nobody could have foreseen the unprecedented circumstances in which the Steelers had to train and play in.
Not only did COVID-19 wreak havoc with pre-season fixtures and force their first few matches of the year to be played in front of empty stands, the pandemic also threatened to financially cripple the entire provincial union.
Speaking exclusively to RugbyPass in the first episode of the three-part Insider Series: Reforging the Steelers documentary series, Counties Manukau chief executive Aaron Lawton revealed the extent of which the union was impacted by the pandemic.
“I think when you work in sport, you have so much uncertainty and things change so much anyway, but this year’s sort of been off the charts in terms of that level of excitement and uncertainty and what’s going on,” Lawton said.
In his first year as the organisation’s chief executive, Lawton faced the prospect of not being able to field a team in New Zealand’s premier domestic competition.
“We sat down with our finance lady and we started to look through the cash flow forecast and go, ‘Uh oh, uh oh, uh oh, uh oh’.
“Our mentality here was two things: ensure the union was financially solvent so that we would survive this, and the second thing was to protect our people.
“Our players, they’re employees, they’re part of it, so the sacrifices that they’ve made have also been made by the staff.
“I took them through the financials we were at and I said, ‘Look, we’re going to need to take pay cuts and I can’t guarantee we’re not going to lose some jobs here’.”
Lawton credits the “tribalism” of local sponsors, fans, clubs and players as part of the reason the Steelers were eventually able to take to the field later that year.
“One thing that was really apparent quite early was those core sponsors were like, ‘We’re with you, we’re sticking by you’, and I think the word I look at is tribalism.
“There’s tribalism from your fanbase, your supporters club to your sponsors, even to an extent your clubs and your players.
“There are guys who have accepted a lot less money to play here than their market worth, and they know that and we know that.
“There’s a real sense of purpose and these players want to play for this union.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 27, 2021
One of those players was former All Blacks captain Kieran Read, the 127-test loose forward who signed a one-season deal with Counties Manukau after he was forced to return to New Zealand due to the cancellation of the Top League in Japan.
Originally from Papakura, the deal gave Read the chance to represent his home region after more than a decade of service for Canterbury, the Crusaders and the All Blacks.
“I signed with the Counties academy straight out of school, so I would have probably played for the Steelers that year, 2004 it was, but I got injured” Read told RugbyPass.
“I did my ACL right at the start of the year playing for the academy, so I kind of missed that chance that year.
“I ended up going to Canterbury and I guess the rest is history in that respect, in terms of where my career went.
“Papakura is probably where I affiliate with. It’s where I went to school, it’s where I lived til I was 12 or 13.
“I kind of feel like that’s home. It’s where you come back and there’s always memories of childhood.
“Rosehill College, which is in Papakura, is a place where I really loved my high school years, so, for me, it’s definitely kind of that home. When you come back, it always feels familiar.”
Despite the unprecedented circumstances that Counties Manukau had to navigate because of COVID-19, it provided the union and Read with a silver lining that would have otherwise never eventuated.
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