Patrick McKendry: The biggest challenge facing cashed-up NZ Rugby
6th May 2021

OPINION:

Junior club rugby starts on Saturday morning in my neck of the woods, so it seems an appropriate time to wonder about how New Zealand Rugby will spend its windfall if and when the Silver Lake deal is signed off and the guardians of our national game sell off a 12.5 per cent stake for the foreseeable future (forever).

Because they’re doing it for the kids, aren’t they? At least that’s the argument pushed recently by New Zealand Rugby in a narrative framed as a stubborn group of professional players and their association headed by Rob Nichol holding back progress and indeed potentially denying kids opportunities, according to NZR chairman Brent Impey in a recent interview.

Impey told Newstalk ZB’s Martin Devlin: “Look at the … clubs that can’t afford boots, and I use the example of Weymouth, one of the clubs in South Auckland, which has really, really struggled. It’s got a great population of people out there but they just haven’t got the money.”

Incidentally, while NZR have been more than happy to throw Nicol under the scrum machine, they have been far more wary about doing the same to former All Blacks skipper David Kirk, a World Cup-winning, well-respected Rhodes Scholar, who has been less outspoken about the Silver Lake deal but no less vehement about the potential dangers.

But back to what is a glimpse of a utopian future: The NZR will be providing financial assistance for clubs and communities via what Impey has described as an “endowment” or “legacy” fund.

Let’s assume all of those who can’t afford boots or club subscriptions will get financial assistance. Let’s assume too that the volunteer coaches and managers who would like to give up their time but can’t afford to will get a hand with expenses.

So, there will be boots, jerseys and coaches for kids at clubs, which is fantastic, and may keep families interested and clubs the busy, buzzing and fun places they should be.

Let’s assume too that the womens’ game turns fully professional, and if anyone needs an insight into the struggles of even an elite player such as Black Ferns and Chiefs star Chelsea Alley they should read her Instagram post about how holding down three jobs while training and looking after her family has left her clinging on by her fingernails.

In theory, those problems could be solved by money. But what about the one nobody seems to know what to do about: how to keep kids at secondary school interested, because here there’s a bit more going on in terms of pressure, expectations and options to compete in less physical sports.

How, for instance, is a newly cashed-up NZR going to get a kid off Fortnite and on to a rugby field?

Others have made the point about the Silver Lake deal that NZR have done remarkably well to hold things together at the All Blacks level despite budget restrictions.

It’s the community game that’s slowly unravelling and NZR are well aware that stream of talent is narrowing due to kids becoming disillusioned at the policies of wildly ambitious secondary schools pouring resources and attention on to its first XV rather than those who just want to play with their mates.

They know too that mums and dads are becoming increasingly concerned with their kids getting knocked around by bigger kids. They know, and have for some time, that the game doesn’t reflect the multicultural mix of modern New Zealand.

Will hundreds of millions of dollars help with all that? Let’s be optimistic and say yes. But if it doesn’t and the worst happens: administrators become wealthier, and provincial unions and the national union itself become more corporate and cut off from the community it is supposed to serve, it will be a disaster for the game here. And that’s without taking into account the risks of servicing a private equity debt in perpetuity.

Because as those mums and dads taking their kids to the game on Saturday morning might say: if a get-rich-quick scheme seems too good to be true, that’s because it usually is.

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