8 Apr 2021

Opinion: New Zealand Rugby gets the message right on Silver Lake

4:59 pm on 8 April 2021

Opinion - They're an odd outfit, New Zealand Rugby.

New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson.

New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson. Photo: RNZ / Simon Rogers

For all the vastness of their media department - and the fact they basically have an in-house television network in Sky - they've never shown much ability to control a narrative.

Sure they've been adept at putting out the odd fire or creating the illusion of transparency when required, but they've rarely set an agenda. One of their staff will invariably be on the phone if there's an errant dash or comma in your copy, but the story is old news by then.

That's what was so wonderful about last week. Instead of letting the New Zealand Rugby Players' Association (NZRPA) continue setting the agenda, NZR actually told people what they needed to hear.

You'll have observed the power of the NZRPA by now. As any good union should, they argue against the employer at every turn. And when they're not doing the arguing themselves, they engage others to do it for them.

Strategic leaks are the stock and trade of all lobby groups and the NZRPA ensure their trusted media partners are well briefed at all times.

Don't like the idea of global test or franchise competitions? Supply a few quotes to the right journalists.

Unhappy with the governing body's potential investment partners? Rustle up a few comment pieces purporting to expose 'the truth' of these negotiations.

No matter the issue, the NZRPA always make sure their position - and that of their highly-paid members - is sympathetically portrayed.

Again, that's part of the NZRPA's role. Whether you admire them for it or not, they're responsible for pushing the players' barrow and you can't say they're ineffective.

That's what's always been so perplexing about NZR. Despite a well-resourced media team, they've tended to be unnecessarily passive in public.

At least until last week.

That was when we were treated to news that Scott Robertson's future in New Zealand was tied to NZR securing $465 million worth of funding from American outfit Silver Lake.

The Crusaders head coach ought to have ascended to the top All Blacks' job by now, but that's another story. What was important here was the NZR scaremongering.

One way or t'other, it's hard to imagine Robertson won't coach the All Blacks at some stage, provided NZR have the funds to keep him. But if the NZRPA scupper NZR's proposed arrangement with Silver Lake, 'Razor' will probably be lost to another test nation.

And then there's our very worthy female players. They deserve not only an all-singing, all-dancing test and provincial programme, but the chance to play Super Rugby as well.

Except that, as NZR chief executive Mark Robinson poignantly pointed out, there'll be no money to pay for that if the Silver Lake deal falls through.

This was NZR at its absolute best. This was the governing body seeking to win hearts and minds, stating a coherent case and offering fans tangible examples of what private equity investment can do for the wider game.

Rob Nichol of the NZ Rugby Players Association.

NZRPA boss Rob Nichol. Photo: Photosport

While the NZRPA argue on behalf of an elite, here was the governing exhibiting the breadth of the issues it has to prioritise.

The two parties - comically, it has to be said - are now in mediation. What a hoot.

The poor old NZRPA haven't been able to get their way for once, so we need a third-party to come in and kiss it better.

If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times - that rugby in New Zealand is about more than the All Blacks.

It's about more than the pampered few in high-performance programmes, it's about the thousands of boys and girls and mums and dads who play and coach and organise and fundraise for this wonderful game because they love it.

People who just want others to enjoy rugby as much as they have and seek nothing in return. It's not about money and image rights and intellectual property, just a simple wish to make everyone feel welcome and valued.

With the greatest respect to the NZRPA and their erstwhile members, it is the fine folk in the community game who are rugby's lifeblood.

But if we want club rugby and schools rugby and women's rugby and Māori rugby and Pasifika rugby - and we want to retain elite coaches such as Robertson - then the money has to come from somewhere. In most instances that's via NZR, even if they are reluctant to point that out.

There's a captive audience out there who want to hear from NZR, who want to know the governing body cares about them and is conscious of their welfare. An audience who'll side with them if they feel they're being open and honest.

It's NZR's responsibility to keep setting the agenda here and not be drowned out by some lobby group.

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