22 Jun

Of Mice and Bogeymen
by Don Christie
22 Jun 2005

Vernon Pugh is dead. John O’Neil has left the fold. John Hart is but a bad sad memory. The bogey men of New Zealand rugby, the ones we scare our kids with, are vanquished. Well, almost all of them.

SIR Clive Woodward, the confident and successful Englishman remains, grinning ghoulishly into our nightmares. After large dollops of cold shoulder he has finally been given the helm of the what should be the best team in the world. For what seems like decades Clive Woodward has been telling all and sundry that he should be Lions coach instead of the Lions coach. Well, his John Hart like persistence has finally paid off, his dreams have come true, along with a $30 million budget and the strongest group of players from the contributing nations for a long while.

We should, right now, be salivating at the thought of taking on the best of the Welsh, Irish, English and Scots. The English won the world cup only two short years ago, the Welsh were rampant in this year’s Six Nations tournament, they come within an ace of beating the All Blacks in December, and the Irish have been extremely competitive as well. Only the Scots are struggling these days.

So what are the omens for the first test? Plenty Celtic flair? Matched with unusually high levels of skill, ferocious tackling and commitment? Steadied by some solid England scrummaging and goal kicking (because, after all that is *still* the only thing they really excel at)? In other words an almost unbeatable unit.

Well, actually, no.

Sir Clive’s status as the last remaining bogeyman of the All Black fan no longer bears scrutiny. Throughout an incredibly turgid and extremely disappointing series of provincial games we have scared ourselves with thoughts of what might be. What if he selects that Welsh back line and the Celtic loosies? Think of the tricky beguiling magic a skilled coach might be able to produce from the prodigious talent at hand?

It has got to the stage that I can no longer envisage this scenario, not in my wildest dreams, let alone worst nightmares. The Lions have stuttered and stumbled in their provincial games, I thought the nadir had come last Wednesday evening at the Cake Tin where, for the first time in my life I regretted turning up in person to watch a game of rugby. But when I saw the Lion’s squad and test team selection I finally knew that the chickens had come to roost. The truth is out there.

The Lions coach has had his comfort zone shattered. His team is experiencing levels of dissent unheard of even in Graham Henry’s time. For all his historic talk of running rugby and 15 man game he has never, ever been successful with that approach. So instead of producing something greater than the sum of the parts he is retrenching to familiar territory. Out go those scarily skillful Welsh, in come the dependable, predictable, ponderous players with whom he has spent so much time over the years. The All Blacks have beaten that lot convincingly, twice in the last twelve months. No wonder the Lions fans a spluttering, particularly those from three of the four countries.

The All Blacks, as the saying goes, have nothing to fear except fear itself, and even fear is a commodity in short supply from our last standing bogeyman…

25 Jul

Cup Fever
by Don Christie
25 Jul 2002

“The NZRFU considered breach of the clean venues condition exposed it to a liability of up to $A10m. A risk of that magnitude should not have been left dependent on an unconfirmed oral understanding” Sir Thomas Eichelbaum – Independent Rugby World Cup Inquiry, Report of the Reviewer July 2002.

This is a key conclusion of the well researched, well written and incisive report by Sir Thomas “Judge Jeffries” Eichelbaum. Ultimately this is the reason that messrs. Rutherford and McCaw are spending more time with their families than they might have anticipated a few months ago.
The report covers the period from 1997, when the ARU and NZRFU submitted a joint bid for hosting the Rugby World Cup and April 2002 where the RWC was finally yanked out of New Zealand’s grasp by the IRB. It categorises a series of failings, mis-understandings and bad governance from the IRB, the RWCL, the ARU and the NZRFU.

RWCL is the company set up by the IRB to manage the RWC. It’s chairman is also the IRB’s chairman, Vernon Pugh. Its vice-chair is also the IRB’s vice chairman, Rod Fisher. Fisher was appointed the new chairman of the NZRFU when McCaw resigned.

The original bid for hosting the RWC and the manner of its acceptance by the RWCL set the seeds the whole debacle. Whilst the IRB accepted the bid it did not actually sign-up for anything. In other words, it allocated the possibility of hosting the tournament to the antipodes whilst reserving the right to change conditions and costs right up to the point of signing hosting contracts. It changed conditions and costs with such gay abandon that the main contract with the principle host, Australia, was three years late in coming and not signed until late 2001. In addition the costs rose from a predicted $A20 million in 1997 to $A106 million in late 2001. NZ’s scope for offsetting these costs was limited and become further limited in 2001 as the RWCL started making demands for 100% rights to all corporate boxes (this was certainly not a requirement in 1997).

Over this extended period ARU / NZRFU relationship was souring. The ARU tried to make a grab for both semi-final’s in 2000 and was pressing hard on other fronts, such as Super 12 expansion, that the NZRFU was not so keen on. That John O’Neil is a pain in the arse to deal with is probably an understatement. In the meantime the RWCL was lacking in leadership and delegated authority. From the report it seems that Vernon Pugh was the only man allowed to make a decision. The poor, unfortunate Mr. Pugh, however, is overworked. He was not available for meetings, not available on the phone calls and generally harder than a bar of soap in a forwards’ bathtub to pin down.

That was the context. You might think that given the above circumstances the good Judge would set forth and exonerate the NZRFU board and its CEO from any major blame in the ultimate outcome.

But this is where the report comes into its own and why it should be used in the future as 101 reference manual for how to run a piss-up in a brewery.

Instead of exoneration the report revels in highlighting the systematic failure of the board to read the writing on the wall. Failure to realise just how irritating and whinging they appeared after years of persistent bleating, failure to develop a coherent strategy, including an “out” plan and failure to recognise that “he who angers you defeats you”. From the very early on the NZRFU’s position seen from the outside resembled that of Romeo’s sweetheart, Julliette “maybe, maybe not, maybe, maybe not”.

The NPC overlap debacle, potential losses, constant bickering with the ARU, a lack of staff committed to the project and a final hysterical outburst to the media, all contributed to the final breakdown. Of great concern was that the breakdown was not just with Vernon Pugh but most of the IRB as well.

The board has been true to its word and published the report in its full, unedited form. This open attitude and willingness to “take it on the chin” bodes well. Despite this it is hard not to feel every sympathy for David Rutherford, the CEO who represented the wishes of the board and the provincial unions to the best of his ability. His decision to resign (McCaw’s was surely inevitable) has opened the way for the NZRFU to “move on”. The direction of move will be interesting. It has to recognise the following:

1. New Zealand cannot go it alone. It needs to build up a broad base of international support that is sympathetic to our aspirations and views. We need to do this be recognising other international unions’ sensibilities and needs and supporting them where-ever possible.

2. There is a strong need to “sell” New Zealand rugby. How many IRB delegates from outside SANZAR did we wine and dine at last weeks tri-nations game? There should have been 22 invitations go out, wives and families invited along with a free skiing weekend in Queenstown. Oh, and don’t forget the free Air New Zealand tickets to promote a major sponsor and tax payer owned airline.

3. Reform of the structures that govern and manage international rugby is required. The NZRFU criticisms of the IRB and RWCL are very valid and it is no-ones interest (apart from a handful of gin swilling cronies) that these structures remain unreformed. Surely, at the very least, Pugh should be forced to relinquish at least a dozen of his many hats. I believe Wales need him desperately.

4. The governance of the NZRFU itself needs revue. This is a difficult area. Because rugby is a grass roots game in NZ and because its governing body is elected by the local unions (club to provincial to national) it is politically efficient to be seen to represent the interest of ones “grass roots”. Clearly there is room for conflict when the needs of local unions conflict drastically with the national needs. In trying to protect the NPC on behalf of the unions the NZRFU made themselves look complete loonies on the international stage.
It should also be recognised that old relationships are changing.

The ARU has a very different structure from the NZRFU and can be much faster at reacting to events. They are at the top of the world at them moment. The Olympics and their love of cricket has blessed them with huge stadia which can be filled if the right teams are playing. Their own team has benefited immensely from the advent of professionalism and the Super 12. They have won two of the four RWCs that have taken place. This is a union that does not feel the need (as it might have done in 1997) to partner with anyone. Whilst Australia will always be an important on the pitch rival it should never again be seen as a “mate” with which one would go naively into major deals.

In the meantime the South Africans are tiring of the long haul across the Southern Hemisphere when a more lucrative European market is just as accessible. Removing Italy and adding SA to the Six Nations would certainly add spice to that most revered of tournaments.

These are hard challenges and the NZRFU had better be up to facing them.

Finally, we New Zealanders need to think quite clearly about just what sort of player we want to be on the world stage. Frankly I find comments, from the likes of David Kirk, that NZ does not have the capability to host major international events to be quite stomach churning. Of course we have it, just look at the Americas Cup.

The major challenge facing us is whether we are going to moan and groan if the “markets” do not pick up the tab for these sort events or whether we are going to allow our governments and local authorities to spend money build infrastructure and environment that facilitates such events.
Without this sort of backing the NZRFU and every other sporting federation is always going to appear diffident and weak on a global stage. I know what I want – do you?

21 Apr

"Inappropriate Behaviour"
by Don Christie
21 Apr 2002

That this sorry debacle comes down to a statement like this is indicative of the pettiness and self serving nature of those running the IRB and the RWC. What we are being told is that NZ has lost the world cup because they were naughty boys, not because we can’t deliver clean stadiums (we can) or because other issues haven’t been negotiated through (they have). So it comes down to “we don’t want you because you don’t know which fork to use for the soup course” statement. How can this situation arise? Two words – bad governance.

No-one seems to have taken much notice of the huge conflict of interest in the structure of the IRB and the RWC Limited. Namely that the chairman of the IRB (the sport’s governing body) is also the CEO of RWC Limited the World Cup operating body (in case you have missed the fact, that man is Vernon Pugh). In other words the overseer is also the overseen.

This is bollocks. It means there is no final arbiter for disputes and where a relationship has broken down no party to resolve the surrounding issues. It means that Pugh can conspire with whomsoever he pleases to reach whatever outcome secure in the knowledge that he runs both shows. Just ask the Enron board what the final outcome of this kind of set up is. Fat cats lining big pockets at the expense of the majority of stakeholders.

And so it is with no sign of embarrassment at their bare faced cheek that the IRB are able to produce the following timeline as part of their “inappropriate” press release:

“December 18th 2001 – New Zealand sign a draft of a SHUA (The December document was considered unacceptable by RWCL for reasons other than clean venues).

March 1st 2002 – Sub Host Union Agreement provided to NZRU for signature by the final deadline of 8th March

March 8th 2002 – NZRU declines to sign and reserves its position in respect of clean venues.

March 8th 2002 – Invitation to New Zealand to act as Sub Hosts withdrawn by the ARU.

Damning, isn’t it. I mean to say, the RWCL took between December 18th and March 1st to get a contract back to the NZRFU. They then gave them 8 days to review it and sign the thing. On the 8th they immediately withdrew the sub-hosting offer. Well, what could be more fair and equitable?

This is just one example of many anomalies that seem to have popped up during the whole process (I notice there is no denial in the IRB statement of the fact that the NZRFU were lead to believe clean stadiums would not be a big issue). When the relationship between Pugh, O’Neill and the NZRFU finally broke down there was no-one to bang heads together and get things sorted out. That would have been the job of the chairman of the IRB, but he is the problem!

Finally New Zealanders should ignore the “heads should roll” camp. The last thing NZ rugby needs in the run-up to the World Cup is a loss of leadership and direction. I’m sure our World Cup opponents are rubbing their hands in glee at the thought of that.

The only person I would consider sacking was the instigator of the letter apologising to Vernon Pugh. Please, can we now officially withdraw that apology?

18 Aug

Any Old Park
by Don Christie
18 Aug 2000

“So what is happening to the Park?” It’s a question I get asked every now and again. I live in a house that had a view of the Millard Stand, the grand old dame of Athletic Park. Well, I can’t say I have kept up with events at ground level, the Stand disappeared from my horizons, if not my memories, a while ago.

On a sunny Saturday, a couple of weeks ago I took my 14 month old daughter for a walk down to the historic site to try and answer that question (ok, tell the truth, we were booted out of the house for a couple of hours). Across the pitches by Adelaide road (where the under 6 years teams were hammering each other to a pulp) we first visited the fence where the Millard stand used to be. A big brown mound is all that is left of that side of the ground, nothing much to see. So we wandered round passed Mel’s Diner, not even stopping for a mega-meal and a pint, passed the Satan’s Slaves HQ and on to the Rintoul street entrance.

Frankly I was amazed, the ground looks just like it does in some of those old turn of the 19th century photographs. A flat paddock, three sides bordered by mounds, and a green, bushy backdrop provided by the hill up to Vogeltown. There it is, back to its naked, original glory.

“Laalaa, laalaa”, my daughter interrupts my thoughts, pointing vigorously to the “Millard Mound”. Yes, that’s where I saw my first All Blacks game at the Park. June 1992, high up in the top tier. I missed most of the second half as some low cloud blocked out our view. Fortunately we had a bottle of Mekong Thai whisky to keep out the chill. Ireland lost 59 – 6. It was also there, on the very top row, that I saw my last game at the Park, a howling Southerly helped blast the French away. This time it was Royal Lochnagar that helped warm the cockles. If you’ve never sat at the top of the Millard Stand the best description I can give is that it was like being at the top of a high, steep cliff. Skiers liken it to a double black run. Thrilling.

“Daadaa, daadaa” accompanies an excited wave in the general direction of “Bernies Corner”. Oh sure, I remember that one, Lions tour of ’93. One of the Underwood boys scorching past the AB defence to touch down in that famous corner. The Lions won by 13 points, what a night we had after that one (sorry, I was on the opposition corner at that stage in my career).

Another loud exclamation turns my attention to the far touch. That’s the one Bill Cavubati, the “Fat Fijian”, scorched down, surely only metres away from scoring a winning try for Wellington against Otago. But wait, he slips a perfect pass to the Otago man behind him who scooted off in the opposite direction to touch down. Argh! Wellington.

Time is moving on, a small hand in my hand pulls me away. She’ll never see a game there but I’m sure I will be able to bore her to tears with Park tales for many a year to come.

So that’s the ex-Park not much to look at, but plenty still remaining in the mind’s eye.