Gregor Paul: Proof that New Zealand Rugby doesn’t need Silver Lake to flourish


The underlying narrative of the last few months has been one of a lack of confidence in the administrative and executive horsepower in the New Zealand rugby engine.

Strangely, it’s New Zealand Rugby themselves that have pushed this underwhelming vision of their own capabilities and who seem hell-bent on deriding their ability to run the professional game.

The attraction of doing a deal with Silver Lake, according to NZR chief executive Mark Robinson is not just the enormity of the monetary capability they bring, but also the value of the human capital they offer.

Silver Lake’s money creates opportunity and the US investment firm’s connections, network and experience, enables NZR to exploit those opportunities to the full in a way they wouldn’t be able to do on their own should they just borrow money as a straight debt.

That’s the argument at least and while it is undeniably true that Silver Lake have an impressive network and access to talent, and that their investment track record is strong, NZR have achieved enough in the last decade to not go all weak at the knees, as it were, when they look at the revenue numbers their possible new equity partner is forecasting and convince themselves that they could never achieve such goals under their own steam.

It’s hard to fathom why there is this lack of faith as, after all, NZR have produced an average annual growth in gross revenue of about 8 per cent since 2010.

In 2012 NZR turnover was $117m and this year the forecast is that total revenue will be $205m and benchmarked against all other national unions or indeed most domestic businesses of comparable size, this is a gold-star effort.

Other than Charles Piutau, New Zealand has also kept just about every player they ever wanted and even found the budget to offer about 40 women modest retainer contracts.

They have done an excellent job at running the professional game and while much of the credit for that has to go to former chief executive Steve Tew, Robinson, who came into the role in early 2020, has himself chalked a couple of significant achievements which provide a basis to believe he has the skillset and vision to drive strong balance sheet growth.

Robinson was barely two months into the role before Covid-19 hit and so he’s had to find a way through an unprecedented crisis and obviously, some of the decisions he’s made have been driven by circumstance.

But still, NZR reported last week that they have $68m in cash reserves, and more importantly, they now have a landscape where the consumer appears to have been put front and centre of all decision-making.

There has been a flood of adverse commentary in recent weeks, suggesting rugby in this country is all but broken and nearly bust, when in fact, the future for the professional game has never looked so bright.

Super Rugby next year will be revamped into a 12-team, straight round-robin featuring five teams from New Zealand, five from Australia, Moana Pasifika and Fiji Drua.

That’s a competition fans want. That’s a competition that makes sense and after years of hopeless, ill-conceived expansion, Super Rugby will be precisely what it needs to be and Robinson deserves all the credit for getting it there.

So too does he deserve credit for re-introducing afternoon kickoffs – probably the thing fans craved more than anything else and partly why spectator numbers have climbed sharply in the last 12 months.

And then, as the Herald revealed on Monday, the Bledisloe Cup will be a three-test series played on consecutive weekends this year.

Who doesn’t like the sound of that? That’s the sort of imaginative packaging of a traditional rugby event that ignites interest and grows the value of a contest that has, despite the intensity of the rivalry, lacked intrigue at times in the last 20 years.

Interestingly, at NZR’s annual general meeting last week, Robinson told reporters that Silver Lake, should they become an equity partner, plan to drive higher value out of test matches rather than play more, and build stronger narratives around the existing July and November windows.

Again, by revamping the Bledisloe Cup this year and having re-introduced the North v South contest last year and having given a Super Rugby licence to Moana, NZR have shown they don’t necessarily need any help in building a more marketable and engaging rugby itinerary.

Robinson is doing just fine on his own it seems – aware that if the fans are given what they want, the money will follow and his lack of confidence isn’t felt by everyone else.

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