Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: World Cup success cuts no ice as NZ frozen out

Martin Snedden felt he had no chance of being the IRB CEO. Photo / Doug Sherring
Martin Snedden felt he had no chance of being the IRB CEO. Photo / Doug Sherring

The darlings of world rugby this time last year, New Zealand will discover this month that the IRB's love affair with all things Kiwi is over.

New Zealand was, for most of last year, the country that could do no wrong. The IRB had taken a commercial risk in awarding New Zealand the hosting rights to the 2011 World Cup but it was one that looked inspired by late September. New Zealand delivered a tournament that restored the core values of community, camaraderie and inclusiveness.

"If you take it all together, it's certainly exceptional," the IRB's then chief executive Mike Miller said of the tournament as the pool rounds came to a close. "Best ever? Probably. It's certainly set the bar very high for England."

It took just three weeks for everything to unravel. Whatever leverage New Zealand had back in September last year has gone. Whatever goodwill existed has evaporated to the extent that Martin Snedden, the man who organised the 2011 World Cup, felt he would've had no chance of becoming the new chief executive of the IRB, despite almost certainly stacking up as the most qualified candidate.

His credentials to fill the post that became available late last year were impeccable but he sensed that the appetite to have a Kiwi in charge was minimal. Probably things were worse - there was maybe an active anti-Kiwi sentiment within the IRB so Snedden didn't apply.

The story of how New Zealand fell so firmly out of favour contains elements of Stalin's Russia - a classic case of a trusted subordinate being punished for supposedly exceeding their authority.

With the IRB and the world's rugby media on his doorstep during the tournament, New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive Steve Tew tried to force the issue of financial compensation on the agenda.

It had long rankled Tew that the reduction of the test programme in World Cup years cost New Zealand an estimated $14 million in revenue.

The major unions had hoped to reach agreement with the IRB about improved compensation and Tew upped the ante when he announced the All Blacks would boycott 2015 if they didn't get what they wanted.

"We want a couple of things taken very seriously around the IRB table," said Tew in early October last year. "We said at the last board conference that we needed a full review of the IRB's financial model, Rugby World Cup commercial rules and RWC money flows. We are waiting with some anxiety to see what the IRB are going to do about it.

"Frankly the prospects of us going to England in 2015 under the current model are very slim. We cannot continue to sign on for an event that costs us so much money."

The IRB executive resented the threat and bullishness of the stance despite agreeing to improved terms a few days after Tew's outburst. Those close enough to hear the internal mumblings of the IRB executive say there was a perception, given the risk taken to award New Zealand the hosting rights, of a lack of gratitude.

That intensified when New Zealand voted for pro-reform, modern-thinking Bill Beaumont to oust incumbent IRB chairman Bernard Lapasset.

The NZRU believed Beaumont was the more likely to deliver change and bring urgency to a body that Tew said had a tendency to move at a glacial speed.

But while the NZRU had no other agenda in reaching their conclusion about Beaumont, their Sanzar partners saw the opportunity to make mileage. They both backed Lapasset - who was able to sneak the vote 14-12 - and in return Saru chief executive Oregan Hoskins became deputy chairman of the IRB, while Australia's boss, John O'Neill, was given a seat on the World Cup committee.

The IRB is not a forgive-and-forget sort of organisation and New Zealand's lack of support for the reappointed chairman is a lingering sore - particularly as they went against their Sanzar partners.

November is normally the month when the IRB makes many of its key decisions on existing and new proposals. It's a safe enough bet that anything championed by New Zealand will struggle to gain traction. It's just as likely that any reforms that would obviously and directly help New Zealand will not be prioritised.

The message is clear - New Zealand didn't play the role of grateful host and now it must be punished. It's archaic and petty - precisely the aspects the NZRU wanted to eliminate by voting for Beaumont.

- Herald on Sunday

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