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?