NZer of the Year: Jock Hobbs

By Geoff Cumming

They're wrong about Jock Hobbs, those wise rugby heads. They paint the All Black captain of the mid-1980s in traditional, down-to-earth tones.

Not quite the strong silent type, but an unassuming, laconic sort of bloke. "What you see is what you get with Jock," says a former teammate.

But there's a lot more to the Herald's New Zealander of the Year than meets the eye. What you see is deceptively ordinary.

The chairman of the New Zealand Rugby Union, who led the campaign to bring the Rugby World Cup - one of the world's biggest entertainment moneyspinners - to New Zealand in 2011, is wearing a dark blue suit, smart checked business shirt and a blue tie.

Rugby has left its mark on Hobbs' balding oval head - the cauliflower ears, the slightly-askew nose help to reinforce the player-turned-administrator stereotype. Less obvious is the legacy of a right hip pounded so badly he needed a full replacement while still in his 30s.

It's the deep-set, brown, doe eyes that give him away. They draw you in until you can almost see the analytical mind at work - listening, absorbing, then putting his case with conviction and passion. He has remarkable powers of persuasion.

He was the All Black who, at 23, was admitted to the bar between his first and second tests. He became the barrister and rugby administrator who gave away law in the mid-1990s to follow his entrepreneurial instincts.

"He's got the legal person's capacity for logical thinking, an investment banker's capacity for being imaginative and a former All Black captain's determination to succeed," says David Gascoigne, who chaired the RWC2011 advisory committee. "But he's more than the sum of his parts."

Twice, Hobbs' blend of skills has proved decisive - not just for the national game but for the national good. In 1995, he was "the man who saved rugby" - persuading All Blacks poised to join a breakaway professional circus to return to the NZRU fold.

The defection of our top players to the Kerry Packer-backed World Rugby Corporation was a done deal until Hobbs, a fledgling administrator, worked around the clock for six weeks, under unprecedented media glare, to secure the players' signatures for the NZRU and a 10-year funding stream with Rupert Murdoch's News Ltd.

"No one knows how close we came to actually losing control of the game," recalls 1980s All Black prop John Drake. "That was a pretty good effort - he saved New Zealand rugby in his own time."

He was thanked by being dumped - missing a seat soon after on a revamped board of nine. For a time afterwards, Hobbs could not envisage returning to rugby in an administration role. But nearly a decade later, as chairman of the board, he fronted the NZRU's bid to convince the International Rugby Board to let New Zealand host the 2011 World Cup.

We had, said the bookmakers, only a bolter's chance behind South Africa and Japan. But the Government-backed campaign, while deliberately avoiding the media spotlight, proved as cohesive and unstoppable as an All Black forward charge.

Last June, even non-rugby followers gained an inkling of what 2011 will be like when a 13-match tour by the Lions and 25,000 supporters pumped an estimated $130 million into provincial towns and main centres.

Economic boost

The 2011 tournament is expected to draw 60,000 visitors for 48 matches at up to 11 venues, with the economic boost conservatively estimated at $408 million. Then there are The Lord of the Rings-sized opportunities to showcase the country to millions watching on TV.

Hobbs credits the coup to a team effort. Sitting in a meeting room at rugby union HQ it's obvious rugby has shaped Michael James Bowie Hobbs more than physically.

"You don't actually achieve anything on your own. I've been very fortunate to have a very strong team around me.

"I don't think I've done anything. You just keep chipping away and with the support of some good people you can achieve things."

He responds to questions methodically, dissecting issues by drawing imaginary circles on the boardroom table, holding a bridged right hand above each circle and repetitively hammering it before moving on to the next circle.

The desk takes a pounding. "There needs to be confidence, there needs to be trust, there needs to be focus," he says of the World Cup hosting bid. "If that doesn't exist there's no likelihood of success no matter how good your message is."

He is forthright. "That's quite wrong," he says when reminded of the widespread view that our size and infrastructure limitations made New Zealand the outsider.

"Wherever it was held it was going to be a commercial success because broadcasting rights make up such a huge percentage of Rugby World Cup Ltd. We were in fact the safest option. You don't gamble with the jewel in rugby's crown, you don't take risks with the world's premier rugby event."

The leadership qualities that made Hobbs an All Black captain at 24 include unflagging resolve, lateral thinking and a penchant for stirring speeches laced with allusion and metaphor.

After his 1996 dumping, writing in the Evening Post he invoked the story of the coral in the lagoon - how the coral in the calm waters inside the reef was pale and lifeless compared with the vibrant colours on the outside.

The coral on the inside faced no challenge for growth and survival while the exposed coral thrived and multiplied because it was challenged and tested every day.

But that's about as much as Hobbs has revealed about himself. "I don't enjoy talking about myself. People have been very generous with their comments but I've been very fortunate how things have worked out - and they've worked out because I've had the support of lots of very good and capable people."

Persuading IRB delegates to see our weaknesses as strengths took more than Tana Umaga standing before them, recalling that he was 14 when New Zealand last hosted the event and it was time it came back. It took more than Colin Meads standing in the Westbury Hotel lobby the night before the vote, handing delegates a Steinlager.

Flying to Dublin

It took more than Prime Minister Helen Clark flying to Dublin to pledge the Government's commitment, although her role in the final presentation was a masterstroke.

It took more than the creativity and dedication of the bid office (a joint Government-NZRU body) and advisory committee, the 600-page bid document and emotive videos of children from the world's rugby nations.

It took more than the wooing of IRB councillors who came here for a committee meeting during the Lions' tour. And it took more than Hobbs and chief executive Chris Moller flying the globe, making personalised presentations to voting delegates in 12 countries in a three-week tour before the vote.

"Who knows what was the final ingredient that clinched it," says the advisory committee's Gascoigne. "In the end it all worked."

Attention to detail made the difference. It was Hobbs who popped the question to Helen Clark as they sat in the stand at Eden Park on September 3 watching the All Blacks beat the Wallabies: Would she fly to Dublin to support the World Cup bid?

It was Hobbs who asked Clark to change her speech on the morning of the presentation, after she had flown 30 hours to get to Dublin ahead of an Apec meeting in Korea, even after her first plane from Auckland was turned back mid-flight.

"Jock was concerned to get the tone right - no gloating, no self-assuredness, no cockiness," Clark said.

Hobbs opened and closed the presentation to the 22 delegates in the IRB boardroom on November 17. He spoke with such conviction that even Pinetree Meads was moved.

He emphasised the importance of rugby to New Zealanders, the burden he felt in representing them, his own passion for the game and the prospect that the whole country would get behind the tournament. Chris Moller - "an outstanding CEO" - spoke about the logistics and commercial details.

"We took it to an emotional level at times but that needed to be balanced and tempered around the realities of staging a tournament and some hard commercial issues," says Hobbs.

"It was an exceptionally exciting moment," says Gascoigne "when [IRB chairman] Syd Millar prised what looked like a supermarket flier from an envelope and the first consonant that came out was N for New Zealand. We knew the rest."

While the New Zealand camp was ecstatic, Hobbs remained focused. His acceptance speech was charged with emotion and enthusiasm but leavened with humility and heartfelt sympathy for Japan and South Africa.

The campaign, he says, was the toughest he's been involved in. He said the same about the 1995 breakaway negotiations and can see the parallels.

"You are trying to persuade people to a particular position and secure their trust and confidence and signature or vote. The difference was the resources. We had a pretty small team in 1995. This time we had a huge number of capable people who absolutely committed themselves to the success of this bid."

In a book on the 1995 World Rugby Corporation wrangle, former Wallaby Peter Fitzsimons singled out Hobbs as the key to resistance in New Zealand "because he was so obstinate and kept at it".

His subsequent rejection by the NZRU led him, for the second time, to distance himself from the game. The first was when he was ruled out of the 1987 World Cup, and all future rugby, after one too many concussions.

Hobbs was a 21-test All Black in rugby's most demanding position - openside flanker, a role requiring relentless stamina, courage and resilience. "He was," says John Drake, "not the greatest athlete but he made the most of what he had."

World Cup winner

He was tipped to captain the 1987 team which remains New Zealand's only World Cup winner. He was so disappointed to miss the tournament that he decamped to the Cook Islands and listened to the final while on a flight from Rarotonga to Aitutaki.

After 1996, his administrative career seemed similarly curtailed but he was made board chairman after a provincial revolt in 2002 over the loss of the sub-hosting rights for the 2003 tournament in Australia. From that disaster were sewn the seeds of a far greater victory.

Forgotten in the euphoria and anticipation of 2011 is Hobbs' role - along with Moller - in shaking up the dysfunctional, politics-riven NZRU to the point where it could even consider making a World Cup bid.

The pair set about making changes.

"We arrived in unique circumstances which provided an opportunity to set out a new vision and a way of operating.

"We tried to strip as much politics out and operate as a team, not as individuals around the board table."

Throughout the campaign, the pain of the sub-hosting debacle hovered in the background.

"We were absolutely determined to do the best job we could for 2011."

Hobbs is no paragon.

He came to regret his participation in the rebel Cavaliers tour of South Africa in 1986.

He likes to drink and is good company in social settings.

He gets on well with Colin Meads, who dobbed him in to the Herald on Sunday. "After the Irish test [last month] Jock Hobbs was pissed as a fart," said Meads. "He had been drinking vodka and we couldn't find him. We got word he was in the team room so we were all invited in.

"It was about 1am and it was only the stayers and players that were left.

"Jock starts punching people when he's pissed.

"He'll punch you in the chest and say, 'How are ya'?"

Meads may be off Hobbs' Christmas-card list. He cringes at any attempt to probe. It's on record that he's the son of a judge and a product of the Canterbury rugby dynasty, a member of a top Christ's College first fifteen which included future All Black fullback and assistant coach Robbie Deans.

He married Deans' sister, Nicky. They have four children - Emily, Michael, Penny and Isobel - and have lived for nearly 20 years in the same house in the inner-Wellington suburb of Northland.

Rugby people know Michael is a first-five in the New Zealand secondary schools team but Dad won't talk about it.

"We support him of course but we don't want to build any pressure ... I just think there are some things it's appropriate to keep private. It involves other people and they're entitled to keep their privacy. "The thing is, you open that door and you can't complain if everyone marches through it."

He has just resigned as chief executive of Strategic Investments, a property finance vehicle which has helped get some higher-risk developments in Auckland off the ground. He retains a stake in the company and continues to run Sports Network, a footwear and clothing wholesaler.

He will seek re-election to the NZRU in April because "it would be inappropriate not to, given the promises and undertakings I made [to the IRB].

"We're still working our way through how Rugby World Cup 2011 will be managed but I think it likely I will have some involvement in that - if I'm fortunate enough to be re-elected."

There's not a hint of irony in those big brown eyes.

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