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FEATURE New Zealand Rugby primed for new civil war with players

New Zealand Rugby primed for new civil war with players
1 month ago

New Zealand barely survived its last civil war back in 2021 when the country’s professional players refused to back their employer’s request to sanction a private equity deal with US fund manager Silver Lake.

It was a tense and damaging time for the sport. New Zealand Rugby was trying to force through a deal that was illegal and then publicly portrayed the players as greedy and self-interested by blocking it.

The fight was prolonged and ugly, and it not only dragged the reputation of rugby through the mud, but it left All Blacks coach Ian Foster in an invidious position of being in charge of a disaffected player group that were at war with their employer.

The Foster era was riddled with issues initially – the wrong assistant coaches, inconsistent selections and Covid impacts – but one factor that may have been under appreciated in serving to undermine the coach was the year-long civil war between the players and NZR over the Silver Lake deal.

Sam Cane and Sam Whitelock
All Blacks leaders Sam Cane and Sam Whitelock were involved in talks between the RPA and NZR the last time the issue surfaced (Photo Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

The players were more invested in protecting the whole of the game from what they thought was a bad deal than most observers realise. The fight to stop the initial deal being agreed, and then the protracted negotiation to come up with a new, acceptable offering, was not only time consuming and distracting, it was damaging in the way it broke trust and left the All Blacks isolated and wary of the very people paying their wages.

The likes of Sam Cane, Sam Whitelock and Aaron Smith were all directly involved in discussions between the Rugby Players’ Association and NZR – preparing for Test matches while also trying to change the course of history.

When an agreement was finally reached in June 2022 to sell an equity stake in NZR’s commercial assets to Silver Lake, it looked like that was the moment the civil war ended.

But it was more a case of the hostilities being put on hold as the RPA made it a non-negotiable requirement of any deal being signed, that NZR agree to commission a comprehensive independent review of the game’s governance structure.

When the review did produce its 134-page report last August, it was emphatic that the whole system was out of date, riddled with political in-fighting and absolutely not fit for purpose.

The players felt that the Silver Lake episode, plus the way Super Rugby was broken up unilaterally and with damage to the relationships with key partners Australia and South Africa, that the game needed to look at the quality of people it was attracting to positions of influence.

The arrival of Silver Lake had also created a different company structure where a new entity had been formed to house and manage all the commercial assets and report to NZR, and so there was a need to determine whether the system of provincial unions having so much control and representation on the board of the national body was still fit for purpose.

When the review did produce its 134-page report last August, it was emphatic that the whole system was out of date, riddled with political in-fighting and absolutely not fit for purpose.

It proposed a new system of appointing directors to NZR that was fully independent – that is an independent appointments panel would appoint nine independent directors.

Scott Robertson and Mark Robinson
New coach Scott Robertson was hoping to rebuild bridges between the All Blacks and NZR, but CEO Mark Robinson now has a major problem on his hands (Photo Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

The review said that the board would need to have a broader and more complex range of experiences and skills to ensure that it was able to govern for all aspects of the game – from schools, to clubs, to Super Rugby through to the All Blacks and that it needed to have deeper commercial acumen given the new set-up with Silver Lake.

The report was widely considered – by NZR, provincial unions, RPA, Super Rugby clubs – to be a supremely credible piece of work and all bodies said they supported its findings.

Yet it took nine months of negotiation and bitter dispute between NZR and the provincial unions to not quite agree on what to do about implementing it.

And the outcome is that NZR has put forward a detailed governance change proposal that is mostly in line with the review, while the unions have created their own version that, according to independent analysis, does not align with the key recommendations and will in fact make the provinces yet more powerful.

The saga has reached boiling point as the RPA has thrown a bomb into the mix by declaring that it will set up its own entity to manage professional rugby if the provinces vote for their own governance change proposal

These two proposals will be put to a vote at a special general meeting on 30 May and for either to be passed, they will need a two-thirds majority. The only voting members are the provincial unions.

This whole saga to get to this point has played out in the media to distracting and negative headlines which have obscured the fact that Super Rugby is enjoying a strong revival with high-quality games, more ball-in-play time and more competitive teams.

And now, the saga has reached boiling point ahead of the vote as the RPA has thrown a bomb into the mix by declaring that it will set up its own entity to manage professional rugby if the provinces vote for their own governance change proposal (known as Proposal 2).

In a fiercely worded letter sent to all unions as well as New Zealand Rugby, Super Rugby clubs and the Maori Rugby Board, the RPA said that if the provinces vote in favour of Proposal 2, it will withdraw, via its collective employment agreement, the right for NZR to govern the game.

Aaron Smith leads Haka
If the provinces’ vote is passed, the RPA will no longer allow NZR to use its players’ image rights (Photo Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)

The letter said: “The Adoption of Proposal 2 will result in the NZRPA being forced to establish a new governance arrangement for professional rugby in New Zealand.

“The professional rugby players of New Zealand will not be governed by the failed governance processes and outcomes currently in place in New Zealand.

“The adoption of Proposal 2 (or the status quo) entrenches these failed processes and leaves the professional players with no option but to establish alternative governance arrangements for the professional game in New Zealand.

“The adoption of Proposal 2 will be a clear sign to the professional players that PUs believe rugby in New Zealand should be governed by PUs for PUs.”

What that effectively means is that the RPA will no longer allow its players’ image rights to be used by NZR.

It seems Robertson is about to be handed a poisoned chalice of trying to prepare a team for a Test series while the game is imploding and current and former All Blacks are trying to save the game from self-destruction.

The players will play as per normal but won’t recognise the authority of NZR. Instead, the RPA says it will form a new entity it is provisionally calling The Professional Rugby Tribunal, directors of which will be appointed by the RPA, Super Rugby clubs, New Zealand Rugby Commercial and NZR, and that tangata whenua (managing the game for the Maori) will be inherent.

And so, once again, the game in New Zealand is poised to experience a civil war, just as the All Blacks are due to play their first Tests of the year against England.

New coach Scott Robertson had been hoping to start afresh in 2024 – to have control of a team that had a strong and respectful working relationship with their employer and no off-field distractions.

He had been hoping to rebuild bridges between the All Blacks and NZR – get them working together again instead of against each other.

But like Foster, it seems he is about to be handed a poisoned chalice of trying to prepare a team for a Test series while the game is imploding and current and former All Blacks are having to try to save the game from self-destruction.

Julian Savea
England lost the Test series 3-0 on their last tour of New Zealand in 2014 (Photo Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

It’s a crazy scenario and one that could rumble on for months, if not longer, if indeed the provincial unions either vote for Proposal 2, or neither option wins enough support to be passed into the constitution.

The RPA has stressed that it doesn’t want to split away, but: “The adoption of Proposal 2 is a rejection of our wish that together we seek an NZR board with a mandate to govern the game for the entire rugby community and, indeed, all New Zealanders.”

Once again rugby in New Zealand is on the verge of seeing chaos break out and the All Blacks being impacted by internecine politics.

England, who they face in Dunedin on 6 July and Auckland a week later, haven’t won a Test in New Zealand since 2003, but given the possibility they will be arriving as civil war is breaking out, the odds are shortening on them breaking that long run of defeats.


Scott 29 days ago

Personally, I would like to see a split between professional rugby (All Blacks and Super Rugby) and amateur rugby (NPC, clubs, schools).

It’s time the NPC become fully amateur as NZ cannot afford to pay more than 200 fully professional contracts (40 contracts per 5 Super Rugby franchises). And before anyone argues where will the Super Rugby franchises gets its players if they are not playing in the NPC, the answer is through their U20 Academy and their Development teams as they have for the past decade.

If Super Rugby franchises want their non-All Blacks to continue to play in NPC then Super Rugby franchises can pay their players’ salaries not the NPC union. If NPC players want to be paid, earn a pro contract with a Super Rugby franchise, as many NPC players currently do each season.

The 70s, 80s and 90s are over. The golden days of NPC when the game was amateur were fantastic but long gone.

Bull Shark 31 days ago

Well this is shite news coming out of NZ.

Utiku Old Boy 31 days ago

Locking the PUs out of governance of the NZ game is a drastic - not “modern” concept. NZR showed through the Silver Lake deal what can be expected from “professional” boards. Secretive, shady deals and huge remuneration for adminstrators. And the PUs, schools and clubs that feed the professional game? Input not needed. There seems to be an agenda of keeping unwanted scrutiny and voices out of the governance of the NZ game and a selection “panel” is much less transparent than Unions, clubs and schools having a say through voting and representation. There are much more people involved in these levels of rugby.

Gert 31 days ago

Pretty sure JK, Goldie, Fozzie and Ben Smith will figure out a way to blame Dr Rassie and the Boks for this mess.

Jon 31 days ago

Couldn’t be arsed reading the end, got tired of skimming through.

Simple TLDR is that NPC has to be part of the high performance pathway, its as simple as that. That it is as ‘inefficient’ as the report highlights is irrelevant, the game simply needs that much investment into it or it will go backwards imo, doubleup or no.

Greg 31 days ago

‘actual owners’? Hmm, that says it all. Asking these provincial union wart-hogs to pull their snouts out of the trough is tantamount to asking turkeys to vote for Christmas.

Otagoman II 31 days ago

Let them go and do what they want. The executive are backing the players in this instance and see an opportunity to assert control over the actual owners of the NZ game which is the clubs and provinces. The players and executive are little better than thieves. The motivation is not about the well being of the game or workers rights, this is about narrowed minded greed and self interest.

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