Hamish Bidwell: the expected revolution of rugby is within reach
Notice – Who knows if New Zealand Rugby’s proposed deal with US private equity firm Silver Lake will come to fruition. To some extent, it doesn’t even matter.
What’s important here is that the game said “enough”. By voting unanimously in favor of New Zealand Rugby’s (NZR) attempt to sell a 12.5% stake in its business interests in Silver Lake, New Zealand’s 26 provincial unions have started the work needed to wrestle control of rugby to players and their union.
I’m not necessarily a big fan of Silver Lake or private investment. But I’m completely fed up – as the NZR and the provincial unions seem to be too – of the reluctance of the New Zealand Rugby Players’ Association (NZRPA) to show any respect for the game it is bankrupting.
Rugby – as in the game that exists beyond the All Blacks and Super Rugby level – is dying. Neglect is the main cause, as virtually every available dollar is spent on satisfying the whims and fancies of our elite players.
Silver Lake will not solve NZR’s problems. It won’t fund the various programs that the game needs to survive, or even meet the endless salary demands of NZRPA members, but it will at least save the governing body some time.
Assuming – of course – that NZR and the players’ association can come to accommodation.
The two sides have reportedly sat in seven mediation sessions over the past few weeks with no grounds being given up. NZR, which reported a loss of $ 34 million for fiscal 2020, needs players to agree to the Silver Lake deal and so far their response has essentially been ‘stuffed’.
There are several reasons why rugby has meant so much to so many New Zealanders over the years. We all love a winner and – more often than not – the All Blacks do pretty well, which certainly helps.
But one of the huge advantages of the game here has always been its relatability.
Chances are you’ve encountered an All Black. Either your dad went to school with one, or a couple lives in your suburb, or several started their rugby adventure at the club your family is linked to.
Either way, the degrees of separation between us and the Provincial and Super and All Black stars that we see on TV have been minimal. For generations, these outstanding performers have been largely like the rest of us, walking the same streets and driving similar cars and rarely putting ourselves on a pedestal.
Anger and tiaras was a documentary made about rockstar Elton John. Haven’t seen it myself, but the title comes to mind whenever I hear an All Black – or Rob Nichol from NZRPA – talk about how difficult they are.
The way they relentlessly oppose any attempt to generate income from NZR always reminds me of precious puppies in ivory towers, crying over the unfairness of it all.
Now, maybe not all of our All Blacks behave that way, but – let’s be honest – it’s hard not to suspect that one or two are doing it.
Most of the time it worked. The NZR, the super franchises and the provinces have consistently granted most requests, ensuring that this country’s elite players are rarely – if ever – required to do what they don’t want to do.
But not today. No, today united rugby. Rugby has shown its unequivocal support for the Silver Lake accord, leaving the NZRPA as the only obstacle.
Few people like to be hated. Teams and athletes keep telling themselves that the world is against them and that no one respects them, but none of this is real.
Despite everything our top rugby players say about never reading the paper, listening to the radio, watching TV or responding to people on social media, they remain incredibly susceptible to clashes.
As their cars and homes get bigger and their vacations more lavish, it’s ironic that it’s critically that players stay connected to us. Try as best they can to place themselves above us, our opinion continually brings them back to earth.
And this is how you imagine this problem will be solved. As rugby rallies and creates a united front, it is no longer the greatness of the players that sets them apart, but their smallness.
If enough people – from grassroots fans to all rugby administrators – have a dark enough view of players, they will ultimately want to save face. The idea that everyone is actually against them for once will be just too much.
But NZR needs to keep its cool here. Today’s vote was an encouraging start, but the battle to put players in their place has not been won.
With all due respect to Super Rugby Aotearoa what happens next promises to be more entertaining than anything we’ve seen on the park.