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FEATURE New Zealand embraces on-field reforms amid angst over balance sheet

New Zealand embraces on-field reforms amid angst over balance sheet
3 months ago

There’s no question that New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson came home from the latest round of World Rugby meetings in the UK more than a little chuffed about how things went.

He wouldn’t say he got the clean sweep of law reforms for which he was advocating, but there was enough progress made for him to believe that rugby is going to be re-imagined almost perfectly in line with how he and the All Blacks want it to look.

Ever since the World Cup final, Robinson has been on a mission to force global agreement that the game needs to lose the dead areas – the ambling to the lineouts, the army of water carriers coming onto the field, the glacially-paced scrum resets, the feigned injuries to buy team-mates a breather and the sporadic bouts of kick-tennis.

Robinson has hit on this idea that everything must be fan-centric and while it’s true that speeding the game up will increase the entertainment value for those watching, so too will it benefit the All Blacks and the brand of rugby most New Zealand sides like to play.

Will Jordan
Proposals to speed up the game should suit New Zealand’s fast-paced style of rugby (Photo Lionel Hahn/Getty Images)

The Kiwis want an aerobic contest, and they want fatigue to play a role – so that the last 20 minutes of a typical Test are open, with space to exploit and room for skills to be expressed.

“The key themes coming through around increasing the tempo of the game and removing the level of intervention that slowed the game down, were really clear from everyone,” Robinson said of the World Rugby meetings.

“When you look especially at the latter rounds of the Six Nations and first five rounds of Super Rugby, I think we’re seeing that coming through in the product.”

If there is a majority agreement reached on whether to globally adopt the 20-minute red card next month, New Zealand will be feeling that they have got the almost perfect set-up.

NZR only has one shot to fix its balance sheet – and that is to negotiate a significant lift in the next broadcast contract that will begin in 2026.

But it’s the set-up off the field that is starting to cause consternation as NZR will, in the next few months, begin the process of renegotiating its broadcast contract.

The importance of getting this deal right is impossible to exaggerate because NZR has found itself in a surprisingly bleak financial position since selling an equity stake in its commercial assets to US fund manager Silver Lake in 2022.

The money hasn’t flowed in the way it was forecast and so too has it flowed out a little faster than anticipated. NZR only has one shot to fix its balance sheet – and that is to negotiate a significant lift in the next broadcast contract that will begin in 2026.

The current deal is worth around $90m a year, but it is a figure which Sky TV, the only serious candidate to own the rights, has indicated it won’t be able to match this time round.

Taufa Funaki
Super Rugby Pacific has produced some thrilling rugby so far with the Blues leading the way (Photo Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

When NZR was negotiating the last deal in 2019, there was domestic competition in New Zealand as the former national telecoms operator, Spark, had a streaming arm. The national body used the presence of Spark Sport as leverage to up the price.

But Spark Sport has collapsed and with an uncompetitive market, NZR has to find a way to build a compelling suite of rugby to try to keep Sky paying close to its current value, while also appealing to an international broadcast market.

This is where life is going to get interesting because there is no question that Super Rugby is benefiting greatly from the law tweaks that have been made this year to help games flow better.

While the rugby has been good – and made better by the resurgence of the Reds and a general lift in quality in Australia – there are fundamental questions still to be answered about the long-term format of the competition

Most of the rugby to date has been relatively fast and open, and for the first time in a decade Super Rugby compares favourably with the NRL as an entertainment product.

“Super Rugby certainly has been amazing,” says Robinson. “We’ve just had an update from Sky around broadcast numbers and, as an example, round four in comparison with last year was up 25 per cent. So we’re sensing overall viewership is strong, and sentiment around the competition is positive, and in that sense what the on-field product is doing to lift that is meaningful.”

But while the rugby has been good – and made better by the resurgence of the Reds and a general lift in quality in Australia – there are fundamental questions still to be answered about the long-term format of the competition. The Rebels are in administration and are almost certainly going to fold after this year.

Glen Vaihu
Melbourne Rebels have won four of their first seven matches but this campaign may be their last (Photo Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)

The problem for NZR is that they will be sitting down with Sky in June/July to begin discussions and they need to present a clear plan about what Super Rugby will look like in 2026.

That means they need an answer quickly to what is going to happen to Super Rugby once the Rebels collapse. Will the competition run with 11 teams or will they look to bring in a 12th, or even cut another to operate with 10?

It’s probable that Super Rugby will limp through 2025 with 11 teams, with New Zealand seemingly in favour of looking at finding a replacement for the Rebels to enter the competition in 2026.

Robinson has suggested that the Jaguares, the Argentine team that was in Super Rugby between 2016 and 2020, are ready to go if they get the green light to rejoin, but there would be cost and logistical issues if they were to return.

Japan and Fiji are expected to be included in the proposed Nations Championship, and NZR and its Sanzaar partners must decide whether it would be better to invite both into the Rugby Championship or play both nations more regularly informally.

There are no longer direct flights between New Zealand and Argentina and it’s unlikely that the Jaguares would deliver any lift in revenue – but would add significantly to the costs.

That Robinson is seemingly advocating for the Jaguares to return is perhaps because he sees their possible rejuvenation might protect the Pumas from player burnout. Currently, with the majority of the Pumas’ players based in Europe, they are playing 12 months of the year because of the August-September timing of the Rugby Championship.

There was some discussion last year about aligning the timing of the Rugby Championship with the Six Nations, but those talks came to nothing, and it will remain in its current slot for the foreseeable future.

There is a bigger question to ask in relation to the Rugby Championship, however, which is whether it will be sold to the broadcasters as an expanded competition from 2026.

Japan and Fiji are expected to be included in the proposed Nations Championship, and NZR and its Sanzaar partners must decide whether it would be better to invite both into the Rugby Championship or play both nations more regularly informally.

All Robinson said on that is: “There’s the question around the two [Southern] teams to come in and some commercial detail to work through. Everyone is working on a timeline of resolving these matters in the next couple of months.”

Mark Robinson
NZ Rugby’s CEO Mark Robinson has some big decisions looming but little time to make them (Photo Dave Rowland/Getty Images for NZR)

But perhaps the toughest decision that NZR must make is what to do with its own National Provincial Championship. Robinson publicly declared it was not fit for purpose last year, and the provincial unions have been told that the competition is now under review as part of a wider piece of work to also look at elite talent pathways.

There is universal agreement the current system of developing players is confused and confusing – neighbouring provinces often compete for talent against their local Super Rugby club. According to a document sent to the unions by NZR: “The problem is that the current men’s high performance development pathway is inadequately aligned, duplicates resource and does not optimally enable teams in Black to consistently win on the international stage, and that the NPC and Super Rugby competitions are not sustainable in their present forms.”

The probable outcome is that Super Rugby clubs will take over responsibility for identifying and developing players in their wider region and that the NPC will remain in its 14-team format, but with a lower cost base.

Teams are allowed to spend $1.14m on players, but rather than lower the salary cap, it is likely that NZR will take on the responsibility for paying the players and leave the unions to focus more on club and junior rugby.

There’s a number of big decisions to be made and little time to make them, making it easy to see why Robinson came home from the UK chipper about how the game is being reimagined on the field, but with a touch of angst about what is happening off it.

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Comments

15 Comments
J
Jon 104 days ago

A late piece from the author, including a lot of outdated information, unless he’s hinting that there is going to be another mammoth struggle between NZR and ARU.

So the changes to NPC are not to do with Sky (as they came out to say in their defence), it is simply NZR saying, well Sky are going to give us less money, we will have to cut down on the NPC. It really doesn’t look like NZR can think much further ahead than that level on simplicity. They should have been targeting the International product on before now, it was the only sustainable way to look after the game.

I’m at the point where I’m happy to see NZR rip things up and try something new, as they have already ruined the NPC and SR certainly is not cutting it as the sole alternative to the International game. It sounds to me like they are just going to sit in a hole and wait for things to magically improve however.

e
edward 104 days ago

That’s not the end of the problems or the solutions…

  1. The big stadium model is dead at non-international level - the NZRU should be looking at 10-15k seaters with adequate shelter from the elements. Build crowds, build atmosphere. Save big stadia for finals.\n\n
  2. Winter is the worst time to create a good product - who cares if it’s traditional, move the NZ season to warmer months - this aligns it better internationally as well. Carve out 2 months for cricket but let them compete otherwise.\n\n
  3. Lack of games - as someone mentioned on Rugby Pass recently, NRL is dominating the airways because they have more more content. 4 games vs 8 games last weekend. The big ticket answer here is politely asking Japan if we can join the Top League to create a 24 team league - imagine 2 games per day Thursday through Tuesday. If this is an option (and perhaps Japan takes a hard pass) then open international eligibility to everyone playing in that league. This would emphatically improve NZ and Aus.\n\n
  4. The Rugby Championship format is awful - take a leaf out of the most successful and storied comp in the world, the 6 Nations and follow their format. 1 game against each of the 6 teams - build tension, build scarcity.\n\n
  5. Share the love - fill in the shortfall with games against tier 2 teams

S
Shaylen 105 days ago

When it comes to the expanded Rugby Championship it seems that SA and Argentina are the odd ones out. What will the travel Schedule look like for these nations if they are included? In one year where they have to play 3 fixtures away SA might find themselves on the road from NZ to Japan and then to Argentina. That is alot of travel and logistical challenges. Similarly for Argentina they already have crazy schedules in TRC and it will be even more difficult. Will be interesting to see how the expanded competition would manage the logistics and timezone challenges

C
Chiefs Mana 105 days ago

I like the idea of Fiji and Japan included in a SH 6 Nations with the current expanded Bledisloe and potential South Africa tours reinstated. With a regular secondary tournament of Samoa, Tonga, Canada, USA (and possibly Aussie A and Maori) to strengthen the second tier with regular gametime.

Tapping the lucrative Japanese market would be a huge coup and one would think it makes their national team more important as opposed to the emphasis placed on corporate owned clubs (eg. French club rugby rise over past 5-10 years). Expanding our super rugby comp into Japan holds a lot of opportunity too as a few pundits are calling for; retaining our best (and second, third best) players in the SH needs to be a focus.

S
Spew_81 105 days ago

The NZRU should deliver more product on their NZR+ web app, eventually, cut Sky out completely.

They should also allow social media channels to use footage in their videos, either licensed or sharing the profits between the two parties. Social media channels have little overhead and work for profit. Every Super Rugby team would have at least one fan who would go to the effort of making a channel focused on their team. It would make the product far more accessible for younger audiences and bring in new/lapsed/casual fans. Even if it just builds the team’s brands it will increase their value.

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