10 Sep 2019

NZR chair frustrated over lack of Pacific progress

4:08 pm on 10 September 2019

Brent Impey has had enough.

The New Zealand Rugby chairman has hit out concerning the inaction around struggling Pacific Island teams, hot on the heels of All Blacks coach Steve Hansen expressing a similar frustration.

New Zealand Rugby chair Brent Impey.

New Zealand Rugby chair Brent Impey. Photo: Photosport

The issues impacting Pacific sides were laid bare on Saturday as the All Blacks handed Tonga a 92-7 thrashing in Hamilton.

The next day Hansen criticised both World Rugby and the Six Nations unions for hindering efforts to close the gap between tier one and tier two teams.

Impey has backed those assertions and admitted NZR is frustrated by the "failure of the North" when it came to progressing areas such as player release and player eligibility.

"To be honest I didn't enjoy the match in Hamilton," he told RNZ's Checkpoint programme on Monday.

"What I believe is that the gap hasn't got any closer in 25 to 30 years between the tier twos such as Tonga and the tier ones.

"In fact, I think the gaps got wider. We either do something about it or in 2048 the Rugby World Cup will be played between the same six or seven nations as it's always been.

"We won't see any expansion whatsoever, we've got to get on and do it."

The power of Northern Hemisphere nations and clubs is seen by many as a significant obstacle in progress for those national teams outside the top tier.

Tonga regroup under their posts after one of the 14 tries they conceded against the All Blacks in Hamilton.

Tonga regroup under their posts after one of the 14 tries they conceded against the All Blacks in Hamilton. Photo: Photosport

Impey said European clubs were leaving Pacific players to chose between playing for the country or supporting their young families, while progress in another key area was being prevented by the major national bodies in the North.

"New Zealand Rugby has been pushing very hard for changing the eligibility rules.

"Players like Malakai Fekitoa or Charles Piutau, who played for the All Blacks, give them a stand down period of a year [and then let them] go from a tier one nation to a tier two.

"That would have made an enormous difference to that game [on Saturday]."

Impey did believe, though, there had been some progress.

Although an effort he spearheaded determined a Pacific Super Rugby team was not commercially viable, new competitions were being explored that would allow Pacific players to play closer to home.

More matches between tier one and tier two teams was also possible, even if Impey wouldn't commit to specifics around what NZR itself would do.

"That's a challenges as well because the schedule is so crammed but there are ways of doing it.

"I can't give you a minimum number [of matches] but are we committed to playing, using our national teams, whether it's the All Blacks, Maori All Blacks or a wider All Blacks team to play more games in the Pacific as we go forward."

Meanwhile, Impey also acknowledged there was still much more to do for the organisation to live up to its stated commitments around diversity and inclusion.

NZR announced on Monday that former All Blacks midfielder Mark Robinson would be taking over as its new chief executive after Steve Tew stepped down in December.

New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson.

New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson. Photo: Photosport

Asked if Robinson was simply a younger version of Tew, Impey disagreed and said the two came from completely different backgrounds.

He did, however, admit there had not been enough progress since the election of Dr Farah Palmer in 2016 as the first female Board member in the 120-year history of the organisation.

"If you look at the percentages of women on New Zealand boards, Super Rugby clubs, provincial unions and New Zealand Rugby itself, we're only at 16 or 17 per cent.

"We've got to move that up very quickly. The Board has determined that we want another woman on our board as the next director coming through and we're certainly encouraging our provincial unions to nominate [women].

"It's a complicated process … [but] we do have a way in which we can ensure that diversity is achieved.

"I acknowledge we've got to do a lot more and we're going to do it."