All Blacks coach Steve Hansen and Victoria Cross recipient Willie Apiata were guest speakers for thousands of Exclusive Brethren at an Auckland conference this week.

Their presence at the business conference has been called "unprecedented", as Brethren cannot play team sport and are encouraged not to associate with "worldly" people.

The event, named "Game Plan 2016" was held at Auckland's Vector Arena and cost $2415 to attend both days Hansen and Apiata spoke. It was organised through Universal Business Team (UBT), a business network operated by the Exclusive Brethren.

Some 2200 people were expected to attend the conference, said church spokesman Doug Watt.


Hansen had just returned from South Africa with the All Blacks before speaking.

One day focused on team building and the second day looked at leadership, with Watt saying the two men were sought out by the church because of their experience with team building and leadership.

"[These are] disciplines that are highly relevant to working in and managing businesses, careers that many young Church members pursue.

"We greatly appreciate the skills that people all around us have, just like we employ non-brethren teachers to teach our children at our schools."

He emphasised the event was a business event, rather than a church event.

UBT regularly organised seminars for Church members so they could learn from each other and outside experts how to better run their businesses, Watt said.

"Each of those businesses is owned by individuals or their families.

"They are not owned by the Church and all profits are retained by business owners and spent at their discretion."

Marketing material for the conference said: "Translate Hansen's winning secrets into your business or workplace, and become a force to be reckoned with in your industry."

The Exclusive Brethren hit headlines in 2005 when it was revealed they tried to influence voter support for the National Party, funding an expensive attack campaign against the Greens and Labour.

National leader Don Brash resigned from Parliament in 2006 following revelations of his links with the Exclusive Brethren.

Also on the bill for the $2000-a-day conference were Air NZ chief executive Christopher Luxon, adventurer-climber and author Mike Allsop, trans-Atlantic rower Kevin Biggar and marketing expert Michael McQueen.

A former Exclusive Brethren member, who asked the Herald not to be named to avoid tension with her family who are still members of the church, said her first reaction when she heard Hansen had been booked to speak was laugh.

"It was just ridiculous to me.

"I left six years ago so it's been a while, but back then you know, people were encouraged to not even buy the newspaper to avoid looking at the sports section."

She had friends who had been effectively ex-communicated for watching rugby games, the woman said.

"And now they're listening to Steve Hansen talk to them, how to run their business."

She said she had heard things had changed a lot since she left, but accepting those changes was sometimes hard.

"It's hard for those of us who have left to accept things are better because we've been kicked out for doing these things.

"But for my family I'm happy they can experience the same freedoms we can out here," she said.

"Although I don't think any of their members will become professional players any time soon."

Massey University religious history professor Peter Lineham told Fairfax he understood the use of mainstream speakers at a Brethren event was "unprecedented".

"The Brethren are not allowed to play team sports. The Brethren cannot socialise, technically they couldn't have a meal with these people. It's a really interesting shift."