Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Wynne Gray: One man pulled strings of mega-million deals

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

Chaos enveloped Johannesburg. In 1995, that was not unusual for the city on the highveld as South Africa bore the strains of new political and social crises.

This was the day before the World Cup final in late June as the nation boiled about the Springboks' chances against their oldest rivals, the All Blacks.

While the Republic and the world offered their thoughts on the outcome, the weakened All Blacks lay about their hotel in Sandton struggling to comprehend the justice and the solution to their food poisoning. About 15km away in the trophy room at the Ellis Park venue for the tournament decider, the chairmen of South Africa, New Zealand and Australia spoke to the world's media.

It was incongruous and confusing.

The third World Cup title was about to be decided between the two most famous rugby rivals and these officials were announcing an international and provincial series among themselves for the next decade. Rupert Murdoch's News Corp had bought the tournament rights for US$555 million ($649 million).

The question-and-few-answers session took up about an hour as the silent but very conspicuous frame of Ian Frykberg monitored the reactions.

The name meant little to most although the Australian media knew of him as a former newspaper man in Sydney in the 70s, who moved to television in the 80s and became head of sport at Channel Nine before shifting to Britain in 1993 to work in satellite pay television for Murdoch's BSkyB channel.

Frykberg, who was born in South Africa, lived in New Zealand and then worked in Australia, had drawn those same three rugby factions together under Murdoch's television umbrella. He had delivered a deal which gathered momentum during the tournament as the rebel WRC group also sought to implement their ideas for a global rugby circus.

The whisperings of a Sanzar alliance started on the plane to South Africa in May. Frykberg oversaw the results of many meetings, negotiations, plane trips and plans, signed in London four days before the World Cup decider, before the officials all flew south to Johannesburg for the announcement.

It did not signal the end of the war between Sanzar, with Murdoch's backing, and WRC, who were being bankrolled by Kerry Packer. It only intensified the conflict with the confusing speech by Phil Kearns a month later after the second Bledisloe Cup test in Sydney.

The bulk of the All Blacks, Wallabies and South Africans had signed letters of intent with the rebel WRC while Sanzar and Murdoch held television rights to non-existent tournaments involving unknown players.

When the test finished, Kearns told the crowd: "Whatever happens in the future, we hope you and the union support us," before NZRU officials handed letters to each of the All Blacks in the dressing room with counter-offers to sign on with Sanzar.

The squeeze was on Frykberg and Sanzar even more as Murdoch's top brass, Sam Chisholm, railed against the Sanzar unions' inability to secure their men. After enormous pressure the tide began to turn and in mid-August, the All Blacks agreed to be part of the official fold.

The deal which had been overseen by Frykberg had finally been sorted with one result being the August 27 proclamation at the IRB meeting in Paris that amateur rugby was no more.

Frykberg marched on to many other mega-million television sporting deals as professional rugby evolved. He watched that journey until he died aged 68 last week in Sydney.

His funeral is today where the eulogies will be resoundingly deep for the man who helped guide rugby through the choppy waters of 1995.

- NZ Herald

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Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

The latest commentary and analysis from senior rugby writer Wynne Gray. Wynne has been covering the All Blacks for more than 27 years and has attended more than 230 All Blacks tests live for the Herald.

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