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In Conversation with Craig Innes

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In Conversation with Craig Innes

Before the 2019 season kicks off and we get back into the Shortball we have a small RugbyPass podcast, In Conversation, where we take our time to chat to a few of the people who make up New Zealand’s national game.

Today Scotty Stevenson talks to Player Agent and former All Black Craig Innes about his career both on and off the field.

In the second installment of Scotty Stevenson’s new podcast series “In Conversation…” for RugbyPass, he chats with former All Black and current player manager, Craig Innes.

Craig “Postie” Innes was one of the last of a famous breed of rugby players. Raised through the ranks of Ponsonby Rugby Club, into the Auckland team, and onto the All Blacks – debuting in 1989, he was of a generation that bridged the amateur and professional era. He scored two tries in his first match at Cardiff, and earned 17 caps for the All Blacks.

It was the final days of old school amateur career path, and in 1992 Innes jumped codes to the professionalism of rugby league playing in England for Leeds, then in Australia for Leeds, the Western Reds and Manly-Warringah.

Innes finished his career where it began, playing out his final years for the Blues, returning home in 1998 and playing until 2000.

With this experience, Innes then founded his player agent business, initially a two-person company, now a global organisation with agents in the big rugby markets all over the world.

Sumo spoke to Craig about his career path, how different it is for players today, the 1991 World Cup, and how New Zealand Rugby can hold on to the best talent with its limited financial resources.

Today we are joined by player agent and former All Black Craig “Postie” Innes, and a very good afternoon to you Postie, how are things mate?

Scotty, I’m good mate I’ve had a couple of nice weeks on the beach and getting a nice tan, but she’s back into action now.

Postie I want to take you back in this conversation to your days as a player, both in union and rugby league, let’s start with where you find yourself today. Describe for us your business, and your role within it.

Coming out of my own career, rugby union hadn’t been professional for very long, I think 96 was the first year, and I’d played a few years as a professional in rugby league so I got to have a good look at how all the moving parts work, and of course agents. And with a group of my friends playing I got to see how the different agents worked and there were good ones and bad ones. And then coming back into rugby union and wondering what I wanted to do with a career after rugby it was something that I gravitated towards.

It wasn’t long after I finished that I hooked up with Bruce Sharrock, who’s still my business partner today, and we started a business pretty much based on what we thought were the necessities for a player as far as management. The whole philosophy was about getting the right people and surrounding yourself. You can get on, you can play the game, without having to worry what’s going on off the field with your contracts, getting the right people involved to give advice as far as what you’re doing financially with that money you are earning.

We started off just the two of us. Over time it all evolves, you have good experience, and bad experience. We thought we had things going pretty well here in New Zealand, but sending players off shore it’s vital that you have the right people involved to meet the guys on the other side. It took awhile for us to find those people. What we were able to do was create a bigger business with them that has kind of grown into the whole Esportif thing we’ve got going now.

We have a chairman that sits at the top, a board of six guys made up of the different countries that are represented, we’ve created this to make sure that across globe when we are sending people away the players and their families are getting looked after properly. They have the same values, and the same ideas about how things should be working no matter where they are.

That’s been the basis of it, and so far it’s done pretty well.

I want to come back and discuss that entire market a bit later, but I want to take you back, not too far back, but to the 14th of October, 1989, in Cardiff and your very first game for the All Blacks. Do you still look back at that time of your life and marvel at the experience of becoming an All Black and playing with the caliber of players that you did?

Certainly. I was just one of those kids that just grew up playing rugby every night with my brothers and my mates on the road, on the back lawn. One team was always South Africa, one team was always the All Blacks. The big scrap to begin with was always who is going to be the All Blacks.

So it was always a dream to play for the All Blacks. Then to have my first start running out on to Cardiff Arms, it still has the same mythical value. For me Cardiff Arms, you got up at three in the morning by your parents to watch the All Blacks playing Cardiff, then the Welsh team a few weeks later. So it was something that was very special, so to play my first test there was just magic. Something I’ll never forget that’s for sure.

I want to take you through the All Blacks line up that day for your first test which was only a couple of weeks later at the same ground. Steve McDowell, Sean Fitzpatrick, Richard Lowe, Murray Pierce, Gary Whetton, Andy Earl, Mike Brewer, Buck Shelford, Graeme Bachop, Grant Fox, Terry Wright, Jonny Schuster, Joe Stanley, John Gallagher and yourself. That is a line up. Wow.

That year was an amazing team to be a part of. Really experienced, strong leadership, Buck Shelford is your captain, Grizz Whiley is the coach, and a great bunch of guys who had been around a long time. Then the likes of your Va’aiga Tuigamala and your John Timus. We’d come through the grades together from under 16s. Walter (Little) and I had played Roller Mills together.

[If you want to rip a photo of Craig and Walter in 1981: https://www.facebook.com/RollerMillsRugby/photos/pcb.353784744821560/353782604821774/?type=3&theater ]

To go on that tour as a group of young guys surrounded by that type of experience was an amazing few weeks. The rugby was great. The forward pack that just had these rolling mauls going 50 metres, and a back line that could finish it off. It was great, really enjoyable.

Twenty years old on test debut and you scored two tries in that game, playing on the wing.

Again, something really special. To actually be out there is one thing, to score a couple of tries is just fantastic. Mum and dad sat in the stands and mum didn’t see the first try, it came along pretty quickly, she still had tears in her eyes after watching the national anthem. Having them in the stand for the occasion was just fantastic. There are a lot of games, and quite a few years pass, and a lot of them fade into the distance, but that day will always be with us.

I know you’ve had a lot of experience with so many of that team. The backbone of that team was Auckland based and you’d come through the Ponsonby system as so many of the All Blacks of that era had, so I suppose it wasn’t a strange experience for you to play alongside these guys, even though it was a guaranteed another step up?

Again I was lucky to have come into an Auckland team that was chocka full of All Blacks and experience. The good things about those types of teams you just worry about what you’re doing, you don’t have to worry about anything else. Off the field they made you confident in you ability, you just had this feeling that if you’re here you must go ok because I am surrounded by guys who are pretty good footballers.

I was just very lucky to play in that Auckland team at the time that was just so dominant, and it just fast tracked me I guess.

The rugby career, and most of the guys in your generation would attest to this, in all my conversations with them it’s been the same, it feels like a lifetime when you’re in it, but when you look back at it from a distance, it feels like a blink of an eye. Did you feel that throughout your playing career, whether at Super level, provincial level, or All Black level, that you tried to enjoy it, and make the most of it while you had the opportunity?

I guess when you’re younger, you’re bulletproof and you think it is going to go on forever and ever. That’s one thing we find dealing with these young guys today – it’s hard to imagine it’s ever going to end. When you start to get into your late 20s you can start to see that maybe this is going to come to an end one day. I guess you’re in the moment for a big part of it, it’s not really until later on that you think: “do I need to start thinking about what else am I going to do with in the game? Am I going to stick around New Zealand, or am I going to head off overseas to have an experience over there.” That’s when those decisions start to get made.

I want to focus a bit on 1991 because we are in a World Cup year as everyone knows and you had your World Cup experience in 1991. I guess there is a feeling from a lot of guys who were a part of that team that the preparation just wasn’t quite there, the mindset from the All Blacks wasn’t quite there. We know what happened at Lansdowne Road in that semi final. What were your reflections and experiences of that Rugby World Cup, still as a very young player in that team?

If 89 was a great year to be part of, that whole environment, 91 was probably the opposite in many ways. We’d gone to Argentina early on and we’d had a reasonably good tour over there, came back and we struggled a bit with the Australians – lost one of the tests over there and only just bet them at Eden Park. Things weren’t jelling, things weren’t clicking, then of course there was the unrest around the coaching. Harty was brought in to coach alongside Grizz, and everyone knew that was going to be a bloody disaster. It was just never going to work. Both fantastic coaches in their own right, but as in playing combinations coaching is so different.

We went off to that World Cup and it just wasn’t right. Possibly there were a few that were starting to come down the other side of the hill, and a few players that weren’t there through injury, the feeling just wasn’t what it should be. We paid the price at the end of the day. I don’t think at any stage during the tournament we really clicked. We bet the English in the first game. A lot of the focus for the World Cup was on that game, but by the time we got to the Australians they had us sussed. And they were a good team. I don’t think anyone can take away from that either, the Australians really had their game together that year and I think they were deserve winners in the end.

They were a sensational side for sure. It’s funny when you look back through that tournament for the All Blacks, it’s the nature of Rugby World Cups you can’t help the draw, but England was that test match you’d focused on, then it was USA, Italy and Canada, all teams that you would have been favoured to put away by some distance – the Canadian game, the Italian game in particular. I remember watching that tournament and thinking there was a real struggle in that team, you could sense it, the effort was there, but things would just not go to plan, and the frustration seemed to grow.

We never really settled on any particular, looking back now, it was like we were struggling to find that spark, or find that game plan that was going to see us through. It’s a funny thing mate, you look at any of these World Cups, they can turn on a dime. Even that tournament, the Aussies were lucky to survive the quarter final against the Irish. I think it was Michael Lynagh who scored that try right on the whistle – they were gone.

I think too, the English against Scotland, Hastings missing a penalty out in front that would have put the English away I think out in Paris. You just don’t know. All these games, all these results just hang in the balance. I think we’ve got it right over the last two World Cups, but before then these tournaments they can be anyone’s.

They certainly can. Let me take you back once again before the All Blacks were a part of your life and club rugby was still a massive deal in Auckland. The reason I ask that is because now you deal with club rugby in a very different sense – you deal with the big British clubs, the French clubs, the New Zealand franchises. You cut your teeth both at schoolboy level in the 1st XV at Sacred, then across at Ponsonby which is a power house club, is there a part of you in some way that laments the demise of club rugby as a community centre, as a hub of a Saturday afternoon.

Yeah of course. I look back at what it provided myself and my friends, and just the fun element of it all. Training on a Tuesday, on a Thursday night, a couple of beers after training. Down for a bit of footy then hanging around the club, there might be a social that night. They’d be chocka.  You’d have Marist v Ponsonby and you’d have a big crowd, and it was a big part of the community.

But it’s just like everything else, the game’s evolved. I feel sorry for the clubs. I know they are all struggling like hell to stay afloat and find their place. From that point of view I am sad for the current guys, because in a lot of cases they don’t get to really see any of that. A lot of them are pretty much going straight from school into these academies, straight into reasonably professional environments straight off the bat. That’s just the way it is. Of course there are other benefits to being a top rugby player these days that weren’t there then. But certainly that fun element I think they’re missing out.

But do you think it’s important in this professional environment, all of us who have anything to do with the game can see that it’s a business and we know that and accept that as all professional sports are, do you think it is still important for these guys to remember the fun, the joy of playing the game with their mates.

Absolutely, as much as they possibly can. It’s a grind if you’re getting out of bed going off to training and making the sacrifices throughout the week that you have to make without trying to remember there should be a fun element. I think the guys do. I would be very happy being a professional rugby player in today’s environment. I think if you’re going off and you’re going to a job and you’re not enjoying it, you’re probably in the wrong job.

The travel, the camaraderie with a bunch of like minded guys and everything that comes with it, it’s not a bad job to be in.

You’re exactly right, it sounds good.

We haven’t touched on the rugby league sojourn, did you enjoy playing rugby league as much as rugby, or did you try not to compare the two?

It’s a questions I get asked all the time. It might come across like I’m sitting on the fence, but I’m not. I loved my time in rugby league, if I’m asked to compare the two it’s just really difficult. My best years as a player, when I was at my physical peak and everything else, were probably while I was playing rugby league. It was great mate, and going to England, I had four and half years at Leeds and that was fantastic. I got to do some pretty cool things, a couple of Challenge Cup finals at Wembley, playing with some pretty amazing players, your Ellery Hanleys, your Garry Schofields, all those kind of guys.

I guess if I had one regret in my league career it was that I didn’t go to Australia a little bit earlier, because I really loved it over there, playing in the NRL comp as it is today. I was part of a pretty special team at Manly, we won a premiership my first year, we kind of bunged it in my second year. But it was just great mate, the competitiveness of that competition, and they type of players you were playing with was just fantastic. I really enjoyed it, it was good experience.

It looks like a lot of fun, but you certainly take your hits in that sport, there’s no hiding.

Yeah you do. But it’s funny, but if you talk to any of those rugby league players they’ll tell you they wouldn’t want to be on the bottom of any of those rucks.

Not in your time anyway Postie, there were a few stray boots even in training, and that was enough.

Exactly. Like anything your body adapts to what you’re doing. Certainly being a centre in rugby league is a bit different to being a prop when it comes to that collision.

I look at rugby union these days and just the way those defensive lines are set and everything that goes into that, there is no difference in the physicality as far as I can see.

Which brings us full circle Postie and back to Esportif, and what you do currently, on a serious note, we know New Zealand Rugby is generally in a rather invidious position here, it is a passionate rugby nation, it is the number one rugby nation by ranking and it supplies so many of the best players and coaches, but ultimately we are in a professional environment. There must be a lot of soul searching for you guys in understanding your duty to New Zealand Rugby but also your overriding duty to the players you represent.

How do you balance our respect for the New Zealand game with the job you have to do, the duty you have to do for your players?

It’s something that we need to be thinking about the whole time. I can really only take you through the process as far as when a young guy, or not so young hopefully as far as rugby years, decides to make these decisions. We sit down with the guys at least twice during the year for official reviews of where they’re at, obviously, we are in contact all the time, to really work out where they’re are at that current time, and where they’re wanting to go. And of course as they start to progress the overseas question comes into the fray as well.

We’ve always made it really clear, and I guess being able to speak from my own experiences, I think it is really important that these guys they achieve as much as they possibly can, and are absolutely satisfied with what they’ve done in the country here, before they decide to take that next step. No one wants to be looking back as a 40-year-old thinking if I’d stuck around and done this, or I could have done that. So that’s paramount. They’ve got to feel comfortable that taking that next step the time is right.

Even then a lot of the time, what we are having to balance with that is, you come to a point where that next step is a little bit too far. Whether that’s becoming an international player, or a Mitre 10 player progressing into Super Rugby. Getting that timing right is vital as well as far as a player’s commercial value to the international markets.

Balancing all these is the act. And being able to get these guys to a place where they’re comfortable, they’re want to move, they want to take the family off for a new experience, and in some cases that could be also from a commercial point of view mean a whole lot more to them and their families as well. It’s getting that right. The last thing any of us in the office want to do is be the cause of careless action. Trying to get that right is paramount.

That’s the PR war as well. We read these stories all the time, and I’m sure you’ve read headlines and columns and articles and planted stories where you’ve planted stories, where you’ve said we’re not the bad guys here. Is it an antagonistic relationship or do you try to manage that as much as you can?

The relationship with New Zealand Rugby for the majority of the time is good. But we are coming at it from different positions in as far as ultimately our client is our players. Our aim is to do what’s best for them. That might not always be in line with what New Zealand is thinking. For New Zealand Rugby obviously, it is important that they have as many of the top players, playing in the country as they can. And they fight tooth and nail to keep the guys here, as they should.

There’s going to be times when there’s crossover, but I think New Zealand Rugby is at a point where they understand the environment and what the decisions that these young guys are having to make. Ultimately when it comes to the commercial aspect it is really hard for them to compete with some of these French offers, or these Japanese offers, and they realise that. I think where we’ve got to get to is some flexibility in allowing these guys, not in all cases, but in certain cases maybe, to go off and do what they’re doing and come back if we can pull them back. We saw that with Matt Todd this year, and possibly we are going to see more of that type of operating.

Wholesale, I’d be dead against. I think it is a good policy that New Zealand Rugby has – if you’re New Zealand based you’re picked for the All Blacks, if you’re off playing in Europe you’re kind of foregoing all that. I think as long as they can hold on to that it is really important. All Black teams are the product of our rugby environment here in New Zealand, I’ve got no doubt about that, it’s not the other way around. It’s just going to get harder and harder and I think having that flexibility is important.

Well mate, I know you’re going to be at the pointy end of whatever happens in the coming year or two years, and we wish you well. It’s been great to chat to you and I know the challenges will continue for both New Zealand Rugby and our agents around the world as we see the changes in this game. Postie thanks for joining us for In Conversation today and we will catch up again during the year.

Beauty, cheers mate, good to talk.

Rugby World Cup city guide – Kumamoto:

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In Conversation with Craig Innes