Paul Lewis: New Zealand Rugby misread the mood

By Paul Lewis

NZRU CEO Steve Tew, left, and Chiefs CEO Andrew Flexman at a press conference on the release of the report into players behaviour at the end of season function. Photo / Ross Setford
NZRU CEO Steve Tew, left, and Chiefs CEO Andrew Flexman at a press conference on the release of the report into players behaviour at the end of season function. Photo / Ross Setford

Watching Steve Tew, New Zealand Rugby chief executive, deliver the press conference verdict on the Chiefs-stripper controversy was like being transported back in time.

Back to the bad old days of the New Zealand Rugby Union, when I saw then chairman Russ Thomas being heartily congratulated by his fellow councillors for negotiating an entire press conference without saying anything of significance.

It had taken place in the old Huddart Parker building in Wellington, a forbidding structure only half-jokingly known as The Kremlin. The NZRU council meetings were conducted in secret and then traversed in an open forum at the press conference.

Only problem was this supposed instrument of transparency was about as transparent as a brick. Life continued sweetly if nothing was said; death [of a career in rugby administration] loomed if someone said something of even the remotest interest to the media and rugby fans, of whom there were rather a lot.

Anything controversial was discussed only in the meeting. Bothersome questions in the public forum thundered into the wall of silence and lay at our feet, like dazed sparrows.

It calls to mind Sir Humphrey Appleby, the obstructive civil servant in TV's Yes, Minister comedy series: "We should always tell the press, freely and frankly, anything they can easily find out for themselves."

We media Johnnies would scuttle about and work on various contacts within the NZRU to cough up whatever pearls were available after a council meeting. Sometimes it even worked.

Mostly, however, the dust of their obfuscation settled heavily on the NZRU bigwigs, often obscuring their purpose.

They were there to maintain the health of, and grow, rugby. But they had developed a we-know-best siege mentality and the same sense of entitlement and casual superiority exhibited by Dame Barbara Cartland, once interviewed on TV and asked if class barriers were breaking down: "Of course," she said. "Why else would someone like me be here talking to someone like you?"

The sense of irony at the old NZRU using a tool of mass communication to say absolutely sod-all never left me - although it must be said, until the stripper nightmare, NZR had done a far better job of appearing open.

Which brings us back to Tew, the Chiefs and the stripper. Essentially, and with apologies to Sir Humphrey Appleby, Tew told us all everything was all right, the police weren't proceeding with any charges against anybody (although on Friday they decided to speak to the stripper again) and the NZR inquiry had spoken to "independent witnesses" but failed to corroborate allegations that some of the team had inappropriately touched, licked and thrown alcohol and gravel at the stripper.

So there wasn't a case for anyone to answer but the players would all get a jolly great big black mark anyway.

NZR misread the mood. Their inquiry was perceived by many to be a cover-up. The whole question of who did what to whom might have quietly gurgled down the drain if NZR had only organised an independent inquiry, not one done "in-house" by their senior counsel.

The folly of such an approach was exposed when Tew, to his credit, fronted up on Morning Report but was cut into small slices by Radio New Zealand's resident Rottweiler and chief interrupter, Susie Ferguson.

Her stringent questioning revealed the basic flaw of any in-house investigation - it might not intend to be dodgy; it might have the best possible motives; it might not actually be dodgy; and the allegations made might indeed be baseless.

But if the Cossacks are cleared by the Czar or anyone who stands to gain from the verdict, it sure as hell looks dodgy.

Go back even further in time and you'll find an NZRU united in their determination not to suffer at the hands of biased, hometown referees - as the All Blacks encountered in their tours of South Africa in the 1970s. Neutral refs? Independent inquiry? Isn't there some common ground there?

Tew said during the RNZ interview: "If he [their senior counsel] had've found out our players individually acted in a way that we could have taken further action, I can assure you we would have done so.

"We were not attempting to put this under a cloud. We have been incredibly transparent. We have published the recommendations, we have run a press conference and we have openly said our players made a mistake and they have let themselves, their fans, supporters and ourselves down very badly."

Ah, yes, a press conference. That well-known New Zealand rugby vehicle for imparting important messages.

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW
Stats provided by

© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf04 at 05 Dec 2016 06:19:12 Processing Time: 579ms