20 May 2020

Rugby's 'burning platform' offers a chance to start again

8:32 am on 20 May 2020

Amid the fallout of the global pandemic questions are being raised about whether it's time for the All Blacks and club rugby to finally make their separation official and divorce.

The professional and amateur game went their separate ways some time ago and a former leading rugby administrator believes the 'burning platform' of Covid-19 offers a chance for the game here and around the world to re-invent itself.

Opinion - When you put aside all the terrible outcomes of Covid-19, the mortality, the economic and social impact, I believe there is a silver lining in here for Rugby in New Zealand.

Ponsonby celebrate beating Marist in Auckland club rugby's 2019 Gallaher Shield final.

Ponsonby Rugby Club Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Over the last few years, the game has been crying out for a major re-think on how the professional and amateur games are run and the pandemic gifts us the burning platform from which to launch such change.

Since the game went professional 25 or so years ago the tension and chasm between the professional and amateur games has only deepened to the point where I don't believe the two can continue to be administered, governed and played in the current manner.

From a commercial perspective the professional game is essentially dominated by the extremely wealthy northern hemisphere 'club owners' and a dozen national unions who rely heavily on broadcast income from the professional game to manage their entire Rugby programmes.

The combined wealth of a few of the club owners would surpass the combined revenue of these 12 national unions and it's only a matter of time before these owners branch out to 'own' the professional game in its entirety.

It's mouth watering for all stakeholders to consider a truly international calendar that was pulled from the annual Six Nations and SANZAAR Internationals with a revamped British and Irish lions schedule, a 20 team Nations Cup and a Rugby World Cup.

I enjoyed a long career at NZ Rugby and observed closely highly regarded and experienced leaders, - Jock Hobbs, Mike Eagle, Steve Tew and Brent Impey to name a few, - who time and time again called for leadership from World Rugby on this issue to no avail.

Former NZR general manager of rugby Neil Sorensen

Former NZR general manager of rugby Neil Sorensen Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The World Rugby 'co-operative' model is broken and not fit for purpose.

It's time for some form of consortium to 'buy' the professional players from the national unions for a chunk of the season in much the same way as the IPL has done with cricket.

Envisage the top 250 New Zealand/Pasifika players playing off in a 10-week domestic Super Rugby competition that looked a bit like what we might see in a few weeks time with Super Rugby Aotearoa with the top 50 going on to represent the All Blacks in a revamped privately managed calendar.

The value of those internationals to the European billionaires could be mind boggling and the value NZ Rugby could derive from the 'dividends' they receive on those players/teams could be significant and combined with revenue received on the sales of the domestic competitions could offer the game an alternative funding model to at least consider alongside the current model that has not substantially changed for 25 years.

On the field I hear the call for the professional players to play more locally (club, provincial) but this is pure fantasy now.

The pro-game and the players within it are too big, too fit, too fast and too skilled to play alongside the amateurs.

It's simply too dangerous and in time probably illegal for example to 'clear out' prone players at the breakdowns, as we see today. We need to move on from 'the good old days' when a player played club and if good enough then rep and if good enough then maybe national honours.

Those days are gone, the calendar and the development of the professional 'layer' simply does not allow it.

Fond memories... but let's not kid ourselves everything about the 'good old days' was great.

The All Blacks v England Test at Twickenham in 2018.

All Blacks Photo: Photosport

As a former rep player my partner who froze in the stands and queued for one of the few women's loos was then herded off into a dark and cold 'holding' room until the 'male only' after match speeches were finished, whereby the call 'let the women in' was made!

Now is the time to seize the opportunity in this time of uncertainty before someone else grabs it first.

Consider different administration and governance for the professional and amateur games and different rules between the two formats.

Think about professional sport more holistically, do we need Yachting, Netball, Football, Basketball, Rugby and Hockey all needing their own professional back end management administration and high-performance personnel?

Could a revamped Sport NZ not administer and govern the amateur codes centrally with satellite hubs delivering the competitions?

Kiwis have consistently outperformed other nations on a per capita basis when you consider our sporting and recreational endeavours.

Hillary, Snell, Te Kanawa, McLaren, Sheppard, Hackett, Goebel, Batten to name a few. We have proved time and again we don't need quantity to deliver great results we just need more of the Kiwi 'can do' attitude and courage.

*Neil 'Sos' Sorensen spent 17 years as a General Manager at New Zealand Rugby and played over 100 games for Wellington.