Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: Licence deal not so super

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The NZRU wants money from investors while still retaining the contracts of stars such as Dan Carter. Photo / Getty Images
The NZRU wants money from investors while still retaining the contracts of stars such as Dan Carter. Photo / Getty Images

It won't take long - two years, maybe three - before the new commercial model proposed for Super Rugby blows up in the New Zealand Rugby Union's face.

They are doing the right thing by decreasing their exposure to risk and by trying to inject more capital into the game.

But they must be dreaming if they think the arrangement they are proposing has a long-term future.

A licence to run a franchise is not the same as owning a franchise and, when you get down to it, Super Rugby sides have just the one asset really - the players. Whoever owns them owns the team; the ability to ultimately control every aspect of the franchise.

The deal being proposed is allowing external bodies the chance to dance with the prom queen all night. Which is a thrill in itself but, after a while, these investors may feel they could do a better job at choosing the prom queen and they might want to do more than dance.

But the NZRU wants to contract and pay the players. The licence holders will be able to promote the team and its brand and they will be able to select the team.

Which is effectively the current situation anyway - the NZRU own and contract the players, with the franchise coach free to decide which of those players he wants in his squad. The issue will be for how long external investors will be happy not owning the players.

The new model will still be reliant on top talent being able to come to an agreement with the NZRU. That's always been a massive frustration for the franchises - they often believe they are going to land a big name but the deal collapses when the NZRU don't offer the player in question the sort of salary he is after. In time, inevitably, the licence holder will want to eliminate that risk and have more control over their business.

Own the players, own the business - and presumably all those who bid for a licence early next year will do so with some confidence that further down the track they will be taking full ownership. It's like the Irish say: no one can be half pregnant and likewise the market is either free or it's not. Franchises choosing players the NZRU say they can choose is never going to work for long and anyone who says it won't work like that needs to push their brain back in.

The NZRU will be paying so in the tender document where it says licence holders can select their own players - well, they can't really.

They can only select the players the NZRU is prepared to pay for and this is because the national body doesn't want to lose control of the only worthwhile assets it has; they also believe their player identification and development programmes are the best.

For the most part, there is no contention with the national body's ability to nurture young talent; the consistent delivery of age-grade titles is testament to that.

But they don't get everything right. Dan Carter was the last great first five to be produced - those who have followed, such as Daniel Kirkpatrick, Stephen Brett, Willie Ripia, Trent Renata and even Aaron Cruden and Lima Sopoaga (although they are both improving quickly), have been victims of a poorly-designed national selection template for the position.

The core skills of kicking and game navigation have not been deemed vital to win age-grade selection, yet remain critical components of Super 15 and international rugby.

Maybe licence holders might feel they want to develop their own players in time - make the investment and take the risk rather than rely exclusively on the NZRU.

The last thing the NZRU wants is to lose the ability to put out a successful All Black side. They don't want to have conflict the way there has been and continues to be in England and France, where the clubs own the players and the national body has to fight to gain access.

Yet, just as important is not going bust - which is what would happen if they persisted with the current set-up.

NZRU chief executive Steve Tew says that $27 million has disappeared off the balance sheet since Super Rugby began.

"We believe we are being very sensible in that we are not responding to an immediate crisis," said Tew. "But the signals are clear that requires some proactivity, which is what we are taking."

The first steps onto a slippery slope have been taken - it is now a case of watching the national body, month-by-month, lose control of the game.

- Herald on Sunday

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Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer. He has written several books on rugby including the Reign of King Henry, Black Obsession and For the Love of the Game.

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