By Liam Napier, NZ Herald

New Zealand Rugby Players’ Association boss Rob Nichol has taken aim at NZ Rugby’s “blunt and ill-conceived” plans for the future and the power play approach that threatens to alienate its closest partners.

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In an explosive interview, Nichol says NZ Rugby breached legal obligations to consult the Players’ Association before announcing plans for the 2021 Super Rugby season. He is refusing to give up hope of getting a Pasifika team off the ground next year, and says NZ Rugby’s kingmaker approach to Super Rugby risks isolating this country from the rugby world.

On Thursday, NZ Rugby announced Super Rugby Aotearoa would return in 2021, with the addition of a final, and the hope of then staging cross-over matches with the five Australian teams.

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NZ Rugby’s board rejected several proposals for a Pacific side in 2021, including one from Moana Pasifika which had the Players’ Association’s support, with chairman Brent Impey saying the team would not be ready in time and the commercial arrangements did not stack up.

From 2022, NZ Rugby plans to add a minimum of three teams to Super Rugby Aotearoa. Negotiations are ongoing with Moana Pasifika, Kanaloa Hawaii, the Western Force, Fiji Drua and the South China Lions, whose pitch is to be based out of Bay of Plenty.

Nichol, however, says future formats are far from set in stone.

“From our perspective we were affronted yesterday. New Zealand Rugby has a contractual obligation to us to agree any competitions and all related financial arrangements. We haven’t agreed what’s come out in the last 24 hours so we’re sitting there going ‘where’s that respect gone’,” Nichol said. “As far as we are concerned that conversation is still live.

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“There’s a big difference between a blunt and rather ill-conceived statement that came out of the New Zealand board yesterday – there’s another option where you work with people and they accept it because they are a part of it and they respect you for making that effort.

“Rather than the Pasifika community feeling let down, frustrated, disappointed and relationships strained to say the very least you actually end up with them standing alongside you.”

While a sixth New Zealand-based team faced opposition from the five existing franchises due to concerns around cannibalising talent, support and commercial resources, it would allow each side to stage more home matches and alleviate some of the heavy attrition rates felt during the inaugural season.

“What we’re still pushing for over the next three weeks is rather than people working in isolation we’re able to create an opportunity where NZ Rugby, the Players’ Association, Pasifika community and other key stakeholders like the clubs, Sky TV get in a room and exhaust all opportunities to see where this fits.

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“That opportunity hasn’t presented itself because with NZ Rugby running its bid process it creates all sorts of issues – and as it turned out it was a bit process with nothing at the end of it; no certainty, no nothing. It’s left a real hollow feeling. They’ve announced some intentions but they’ve got nowhere with it. It doesn’t allow for cooperation.

“The players told us this year how tough it was playing Aotearoa and to maintain performance when you’re playing the best teams for more than three games in a row is a really big ask. When you bring a sixth team in you can immediately place the byes where you want; you can immediately afford to rotate.”

NZ Rugby’s expressions of interest approach to reshaping Super Rugby has drawn widespread criticism, particularly from Rugby Australia who were essentially told to cut at least two teams and therefore did not apply.

Nichol says there needs to be perspective about how much Australia can bring to the table, and a changing of attitudes in the way in which NZ Rugby conducts its business.

“What we don’t want is someone trying to be the kingmaker in this situation. As soon as someone feels they’re in a position to dictate, a whole lot of other people want to take them down.

“We have five teams and a commercial market that’s smaller than New South Wales. Australia comes with assets. They come with experience, and legacy. Respect that legacy and work with them. This business of an eight-team competition with three new teams, we don’t get that.

“From our perspective you don’t go out with another option until you’ve exhausted the logical one which is working with Australia and the Pacific Islands to form something across trans-Tasman Pacific.

“If you’re Australia, you’re asking ‘what have we done wrong?’

“Why would you have a competition that involves the Western Force and not New South Wales, Queensland and the Brumbies? That splits Australian rugby. New Zealand players, we don’t want to be part of that. Not unless it’s an absolute last resort. It’s not our starting point.

“Our advice is to work with Australia, help make them stronger, that’s what is going to benefit us all in the long run. We prefer a humble approach where we work with people and attempt to come up with solutions.”

In failing to work with its partners, Nichol says NZ Rugby hasn’t considered all the options such as World Rugby potentially supporting Pacific Island development teams to underpin a Pasifika team, and continuing the revived North versus South concept that proved a major hit this year.

“It went down so well this year. The players absolutely loved it; the fans loved it and that was without crowds. Imagine if you had crowds and did three game series a la State of Origin. And imagine in a World Cup year if you included the women, and did an age grade team to make it three games a weekend.”

With existing SANZAAR contracts in place Nichol says NZ Rugby cannot commit to anything for 2022 and beyond.

“When you’re running a bidding process for something you can’t commit to, what’s going on? That’s the first big question.

“There’s nothing wrong with New Zealand doing what they feel is best. But we don’t think the approach New Zealand has taken in saying we have to be the kingmaker is necessarily the right approach. This a pandemic. You get through these things by working together.

“We fully appreciate the five existing clubs want certainty. Everyone wants certainty right now. But it’s also a time for everyone to stay really calm cool and collected.

“Now is the time for the SANZAAR partnership to get stronger. Otherwise we really do risk becoming isolated in the rugby world.”

This article first appeared on nzherald.co.nz and was republished with permission.

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