New Zealand’s strong arm tactics evoke memories of 2003 Rugby World Cup debacle | Matt McILraith

New Zealand’s strong arm tactics evoke memories of 2003 Rugby World Cup debacle | Matt McILraith

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t is a pity no one is still around among the New Zealand rugby leadership from 18 years ago when the country lost the co-hosting rights to the 2003 Rugby World Cup. Had there been, they might have been able to advise the current crop of decision makers against heading down the path of populism.

They might have counselled against issuing ultimatums rather than olive branches, when the circumstances regarding the future of Super Rugby demands working together with their Australian partners, rather than apart.

In 2002 New Zealand, which was scheduled to co-host the following year’s Rugby World Cup with Australia, ran afoul of the then International Rugby Board, for its failure to provide stadiums free of existing sponsorship agreements, and other iron-clad commercial arrangements.

Unable to untangle itself from the bind, the New Zealand Rugby Union opted to vilify the then IRB chairman Vernon Pugh as inflexible and unrealistic, while targeting his Australian counterpart John O’Neill as opportunistic, when he seized the moment to campaign for sole hosting rights if his trans-Tasman partner did not get its act together.

At home, the New Zealand union initially gained a large measure of support, seen by the public to be holding the line and standing up for the little guy, but this gradually drained as the imperfections of its pre-tournament preparations became apparent.

After a desperate attempt to lobby support from other nations failed, New Zealand was stripped of its co-host status.

The recriminations did not take long in coming. Chief executive David Rutherford, chairman Murray McCaw, and all but one member of the board were forced out after an external review of the union’s performance delivered a scathing rebuke.

While it appeared at the time that some on the board had not fully understood the co-hosting agreements’ terms, and so had allowed themselves to be party to the finger of responsibility being pointed elsewhere, there was no question that the union bungled its responsibilities. It then made things worse with its ham-fisted attempt to blame others.

Fast forward to 2020 and there are more than a few similarities in the current imbroglio to how the previous discord blew out of control, which the current New Zealand Rugby administration would be wise to consider.

While conducting an internal review into what sort of Super Rugby content their stakeholders wanted to see in the future was admirable, did the board members all really appreciate the magnitude of what they were asking, and how the manner in which they went about it would be perceived, both in Australia and globally?

With the damage the expulsion of the Western Force from Super Rugby did to the game still a recent memory, did they really just expect Australia to roll over and acquiesce to the demand to cut at least two, if not three, of its teams?

New Zealand officials are correct in arguing that Australia does not have the same playing depth, at least currently, and so will inevitably provide one, if not more, weaker teams to a 10-team format, but that argument can run both ways.

How would the New Zealanders have reacted had its Sanzaar partners demanded a downsizing of their contribution, after the Highlanders finished second bottom and below all five Australian teams in 2013?

By not considering the politics of Australian rugby, and the likely repercussions for their counterparts of what they were asking, the “negotiation” was doomed to failure. Even Donald Trump would tell you a key aspect in “the art of the deal” is to give the other side an honourable way out. New Zealand has not given Australia that.

In doing so, it left the Rugby Australia board with no choice but to hold the line. It was totally predictable when that stance was revealed by this week’s offering to the broadcasters – five teams apiece, or each country goes its own way.

Given that pay television, which ultimately funds it, is interested in the volume of product first and actual quality second (not that it would admit to that openly), a 10-team trans-Tasman competition is going to be more to its liking than two bunches of five. Which is why that is probably where we will end up.

It can both run for, and retain the interest for, longer, building to crescendo in an extended finals series, something that cannot be achieved from a five-team format.

Although Super Rugby Aotearoa has been a success, both in attendance and television numbers, the extenuating circumstances of no live sport in New Zealand for three months during the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown undoubtedly contributed.

Interest will inevitably fall when the national provincial championship starts next month, given it is essentially a watered-down version of the product the public has just consumed. History also suggests that Super Rugby will struggle to recapture the same level of fervour next year.

If Aotearoa highlighted one thing, it is that less rugby leads to a better quality of product and more excitement. But the first part of that statement is not something broadcasters, nor rugby’s finance people, want to hear.

The reality for New Zealand is that Aotearoa, as successful as it has been, is not sustainable, both because the broadcasters need more games and because the injury rate is statistically much higher while exclusively playing weekly derby matches.

Which takes us back to 2002 where, having let the populist genie out of its bottle, New Zealand Rugby overreached politically, lost its share of the World Cup, and its leadership paid the price.

Overreach this time seems likely to result in a New Zealand backdown, and a five-by-five trans-Tasman competition next year or playing among themselves again.

While either outcome, although embarrassing in terms of failed diplomacy, will not be quite as personally ruinous for the current administrators as it was to their counterparts 18 years ago, the long-term effects could be even greater.

The whole rugby world has watched New Zealand try to strong-arm its partner, many incredulous to the naivety of the approach. It may be that the lack of flexibility New Zealand has shown in those negotiations is returned by all who deal with the country from a position of strength in the future.

For a system as economically stretched as New Zealand Rugby already is, this may be even more costly in the long run than losing half of a Rugby World Cup.