‘Terrible mistake’: New Zealand Rugby’s ominous warning to players

Outgoing New Zealand Rugby chairman Brent Impey believes it will be a terrible mistake if the Players’ Association do not back the Silver Lake deal when mediation between the two parties resumes in the coming weeks.

New Zealand’s 26 provincial unions delivered the governing body a mandate to forge ahead after voting unanimously at the Annual General Meeting in Wellington on Thursday in favour of selling a 12.5 per cent share in NZ Rugby’s commercial rights for $387.5 million to the US technology investment firm.

Yet the proposal, which would immediately inject $39 million through the provincial unions and other rugby entities, and see the establishment of a $200 million legacy fund designed to futureproof the game, remains blocked after six days of mediation failed to reach a resolution between the Players’ Association and NZ Rugby power brokers.

After yesterday labelling continued resistance from the Players’ Association potentially the “biggest own goal in the history of New Zealand sport” Impey doubled down following the provincial union vote.

“It would be a terrible mistake if the players don’t eventually support this deal; a really bad mistake,” Impey, who is set to finish his term as chairman next month, said. “We talk about the community game but it’s the kids running around. Go the Weymouth rugby club where there’s kids with no boots or jerseys; they struggle to get coaches and that’s replicated in many parts of New Zealand.

“We’re trying to solve that as an issue and this is the plan to do that.

“It’s a lot of money $388 million – it’s undreamed of in New Zealand sport, really. I’m proud of our provincial unions for voting unanimously it really sends a message about the importance of the community game.

“I’ve expressed disappointment the Players’ Association haven’t come on board and given their approval. I hope the message that was sent today will be understood. The players are part of our team, we want them as part of our team, and it’s critical. It’s very clear this is a deal that must proceed.”

While the Players’ Association have other reservations attached to selling 12.5 per cent of future funding to offshore private investors, and the potential costs associated with doing so, one major sticking point is NZ Rugby attempting to reduce the players’ share of 36.5 per cent of overall revenue – an agreement that has been in place since 2013.

Asked if New Zealand’s professional players were being greedy in renegotiating their collective agreement, which leaves them kingmakers in the Silver Lake deal, Impey made it clear the players will benefit should the minority sale progress.

“I’m not going to use those words. It comes down to how the money is spent. In my view the need in the game is for clubs and teenagers. Out of this process the professional players will be getting pay rises so there’s no issue around the money we will be offering the Players’ Association in terms of an increase.

“There are issues around the percentages as has been published in the past couple of days but for us the build-up of the legacy fund is the critical area because we want to make sure we get a return on that investment.

“There’s still a way to go as part of the process.”

The AGM revealed NZ Rugby suffered a $34.6 million loss in the last financial year, largely due to Covid-19 impacts – a figure exasperated by a $16m loss from the five per cent Sky Television shares.

NZR chief financial officer Nicki Nicol said while cash reserves were stable enough at $68 million, without the Silver Lake investment underfunded areas such as the women’s game, Maori, participation and the grassroots will continue to feel the brunt.

“From a professional sense we could keep going for a period of time but it doesn’t see community investment,” Nicol said. “I don’t want people to leave today thinking we’ve got a burning platform. We’ve done well during Covid, but with how we want to transform the sport we can’t do that with the reserves we have today. We have looked at other options but we believe this is by far the most compelling.”

New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson indicated there was no set timeframe to resolve the deadlock with the Players’ Assocation.

“There’s not a deadline. Silver Lake have advised us they will be patient as we go through the process,” Robinson said. “We hope to be able to reach a resolution with the Players’ Association and we have some time to work that through. We’ll be in touch at some stage in the next couple of weeks to set out what that next phase will look like.

“We think we’re aligned at a lot of levels. There are a number of things when we sit and talk we realise there’s a common interest but, clearly, there’s a few things we’re a little way apart on. They’re the things we need to come back together on whenever the time is right in the next couple of weeks.

“We’re convinced there’s an opportunity for everyone in the game to benefit and it’s an opportunity for a real reset. No one needs to go backwards here.”

Robinson rejected assertions that Silver Lake would increasingly push for the All Blacks to play more tests each year in order to hit projected revenue targets. He argued the drive instead remained on creating more meaning in the established July and November test windows, and formulating competitions such as the world club challenge that could see the best teams of the north and south facing off.

“It’s a fallacy to suggest that is what their focus is on. We’ve never supported that thesis either in terms of what it means for player welfare which is our No 1 concern.

“To suggest it’s going to be more and more rugby and travelling circuses is ridiculous. They’ve got a thesis that is aligned with ours around how do we create more premium rugby content, stronger narratives around our competitions that drive more revenue with the same or potentially less rugby. That is ultimately where we’d like to get to.”

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