Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

New Zealand Rugby: The best of times, the worst of times

Tonight, the All Blacks chase an exalted place in rugby history. But as Herald rugby reporter Gregor Paul writes today in this opinion piece, off-field the picture is not as rosy with NZ Rugby facing a tidal wave of incidents that raise concerns about the prevailing culture in the sport.
New Zealand All Blacks captain Richie McCaw and Daniel Carter hold aloft the Webb Ellis Trophy after winning the Rugby World Cup last year. Photo / Brett Phibbs
New Zealand All Blacks captain Richie McCaw and Daniel Carter hold aloft the Webb Ellis Trophy after winning the Rugby World Cup last year. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Greatness will be bestowed upon the All Blacks tonight if they win at Eden Park.

They will collect a world record for consecutive victories and take an exalted place in history.

Victory, should it come, will confirm what everyone already knows, that this is a golden era for the national team.

They have won back-to-back World Cups, recorded the first perfect season, lost just three times in the past four years and secured every trophy there is.

The picture, it seems, is near perfect: every cliche about rugby being religion and New Zealand a nation of worshippers ringing true.

But as much as it is the best of times, it is also the worst of times.

The All Blacks have been a stunning fireworks display - and as heads have been tilted up to gasp and exclaim in wonder, no one has been keeping an eye on what has been happening at ground level.

The past few months have produced a tidal wave of off-field incidents that have raised concerns about the prevailing culture within the sport.

The questions are legitimate - when leading players think nothing of hiring a stripper as their post-season entertainment and an 18-year-old escapes conviction and carries on with his professional rugby life without sanction for assaulting someone, who doesn't wonder if there is something rotten in the state of Denmark?

But in this digital age hysteria builds, and points get missed.

Professional rugby is reflective of wider societal trends as opposed to being a pocket of encouraged and nurtured misogyny.

Abusive or violent behaviour and actions that degrade, humiliate or intimidate others, particularly women, can never be condoned or accepted, but it is a statistical reality that professional rugby, so heavily populated by young men, is going to incur such incidents.

The New Zealand Rugby Union, in partnership with the New Zealand Rugby Players' Association, has worked hard to develop education programmes to guide players on acceptable standards of behaviour and make clear their contractual obligations.

That bit they have done well.

Where the cracks have appeared is in the way the NZRU has responded when things have gone wrong and the bigger, more pertinent question to have arisen in the past few months is whether the game, across all levels, has the right administrative and executive structures and programmes to stay relevant and healthy.

Embracing diversity is part - but not all - of the remedy, but may not be a panacea for all rugby's ills. Photo / Getty Images
Embracing diversity is part - but not all - of the remedy, but may not be a panacea for all rugby's ills. Photo / Getty Images

RUGBY, AS it stands, is a game administered by men, coached by men, managed by men and governed by an ingrained culture of men looking after men.

This is how it has always been and rugby can't pretend it hasn't operated through an old boys network at all levels - domestic, national and international.

World Cup hosting rights have been decided by men agreeing deals over a gin and tonic in their exclusive, men-only clubs.

That's why at previous tournaments games have been played outside the host territory - these were the bargaining chips offered to secure the votes.

This is not a world to which women can easily gain access and learn the rules.

It's no different at provincial, Super Rugby and national level in New Zealand where men have always controlled the decision-making process and deliberately or not, operated a system where only other like-minded men gain acceptance to their group.

It is a club open only to a select few and New Zealand rugby has homogenised governance at a time when it so desperately needs diversity.

It's debatable, doubtful even, that if there was an equal gender balance in management and executive roles, that the events that have rocked the game in recent months wouldn't have happened. Young men will always be human and humans have flaws.

A more equal gender balance in positions of influence would at least create a perception of rugby having embraced inclusiveness and in the court of public opinion, perception is reality.

But this need for diversity is not abstract. It is not about ticking boxes.

The biggest growth opportunity in New Zealand and world rugby lies with women. Total playing numbers in New Zealand have grown marginally in the past five years, but the percentage of women playing steadily climbs.

Five years ago there were about 12,000 women playing - now there are 21,000, which exceeds the NZRU's goal of having 20,000 females playing by 2020.

As heads have been tilted up to gasp and exclaim in wonder, no one has been keeping an eye on what has been happening at ground level.

By 2020, there could be 40,000 women playing - almost a third of the total playing base and that is possibly a conservative estimate given the potential impact of the women's sevens team winning a silver medal at the Olympics earlier this year.

Women's rugby is going to need money - for coaches, for equipment, for administrators, for competition structures, for high-performance programmes and for elite players.

But will it win its fair share of the funding in such a male-dominated landscape? Can the opportunity be effectively managed if the only executive voices given a say in strategy and financial allocation are those of older, white males?

Everyone already knows the answer and now the biggest challenge for the sport is not finding ways to keep the All Blacks on top of the world, but forcing rapid change at all levels to give women a meaningful presence and begin what could be a difficult process of changing attitudes around inclusiveness.

The evidence for being sceptical about the prospect of this happening is overwhelming, starting with the fact that the NZRU were resistant for many years to classify the Black Ferns as a high-performance team.

When the first payment structures for New Zealand's women's sevens players were agreed as part of the collective in 2013, the top contract - offered to a minimum of four players - was set at a minimum of $30,000 a year.

The NZRU had made it a strategic goal to win two gold medals at the Rio Olympics and asked the women's players to train for 20 hours a week to earn their money.

According to the 2013 annual report, the typical fee paid to the all-male NZRU board members who met once a month, was $36,000 per annum.

It's unlikely the NZRU board compared their director's earnings with the contracts paid to the elite women's players, but the fact they weren't cognitive of the discrepancy says it all.

The NZRU has 12 men on its board and no women.

In Super Rugby, there are 40 board positions across the five teams - and three are held by women.

At Mitre 10 Cup level, most of the 14 provinces have eight board members.

There are seven women board members across the 14 teams. There are a further nine women board members spread across the 12 Heartland provinces.

Women have a 6 per cent representation in the elite governance of rugby in New Zealand and yet constitute about 15 per cent of the total players.

It is not, as it stands, a sport that has done anything but talk about the importance of diversity.

Rugby, as it stands, is a game administered by men, coached by men, managed by men and governed by an ingrained culture of men looking after men. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Rugby, as it stands, is a game administered by men, coached by men, managed by men and governed by an ingrained culture of men looking after men. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Yesterday, Dame Therese Walsh presented a paper to the NZRU after a near five-month review into how to generate gender diversity on the national body's board.

It was a paper effectively commissioned by NZRU chairman Brent Impey who has made diversity a priority issue of his tenure.

If nothing else, the current situation falls some way short of best practice.

For an organisation that prides itself on being world class, the fact there is not a single woman on the board is a significant failing in the chairman's eyes.

Corporate New Zealand has begun to embrace gender diversity in the boardroom. New Zealand rugby hasn't.

Impey's desire to see meaningful change should be seen as genuine.

He has learned two critical things in light of recent events.

The first is that public expectation about professional players' behaviour exceeds his previous understanding.

The second, is that every off-field incident involving any rugby player - no matter where, what or by whom, professional, amateur, male or female - ends up on the doorstep of the NZRU.

By having a diverse range of people in management and executive roles, rugby can collectively build a more diverse range of strategies to better equip and educate players to try to reduce the number of serious misdemeanours and better handle situations when things go wrong.

Impey knows the NZRU is an institution mired in tradition and that change won't happen unless it is driven.

The national body has to be the one to set the example and then pressure the provinces to follow.

World Cup hosting rights have been decided by men agreeing deals over a gin and tonic in their exclusive, men-only clubs. Photo / Brett Phibbs
World Cup hosting rights have been decided by men agreeing deals over a gin and tonic in their exclusive, men-only clubs. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Embracing diversity is part - but not all - of the remedy, but may not be a panacea for all rugby's ills.

Equally damaging to the sport in recent months has been the default mindset of executives to clam up.

Rugby has no culture of transparency when it comes to management and the prevailing philosophy is to treat information as power.

The media are seen as the enemy and not a conduit of key information to stakeholders.

The situation is particularly bad in New Zealand where the national body too easily takes the view it doesn't have to explain its actions and that anyone who disagrees simply doesn't understand.

Tensions in this regard were high long before Strippergate, as NZRU chief executive Steve Tew has been perplexed and frustrated by the negative media coverage of Super Rugby.

The Herald in particular has been the subject of his ire, yet rather than explain the rationale for expanding the competition, his method was to berate the paper for refusing to be supportive of a new structure widely derided by coaches, players and fans.

An invasion of women into governance roles may save rugby from falling into obscurity in the coming years.

The inherent ugliness of the structure and obvious lack of integrity to the draw meant the competition needed a delicate selling job.

Media were going to be sceptical about a competition that didn't make immediate sense, but the NZRU put the jackboots on and told everyone they had to love it because it was all they were going to get.

One of the dangers of an all-male board is that its members can only see the world through their eyes.

Another is that they can't understand not everyone is seeing the same things.

If there is a third major problem, it is perhaps that a culture has grown among those running the game, fostering a belief that they can control the flow of information and don't have to share knowledge with anyone other than themselves.

There would be no better, or perhaps that should be worse, example of this than the recent Spygate saga where a listening device was found in the All Blacks' hotel in Sydney.

It was a federal offence, yet it took the NZRU five days to report the matter to the police.

Only they will know why it took so long, and indeed whether they would have done so at all had it not been that the Herald knew about the bug.

Many people, including the Human Rights Commission, saw the review of the Chiefs stripper scandal as yet more evidence of a desire to cover things up, and that feeling was only exacerbated when Losi Fillipo was initially allowed to return to playing with Wellington after committing assault.

An invasion of women into governance roles may save rugby from falling into obscurity in the coming years.

It may also prove to be the catalyst to driving a more transparent information culture.

And that gender revolution needs to begin soon, or this really will be the last great All Blacks era.

Women on rugby boards

Who runs New Zealand Rugby?

In the 124-year history of New Zealand Rugby, the organisation has never had a female chief executive or board member. So who are the nine men in charge of the national game?

Brent Impey. Photo / Janna Dixon
Brent Impey. Photo / Janna Dixon

Brent Impey - Chairman(Appointed)

Former chief executive of MediaWorks, the head of the table is the second-longest serving member of the board. Impey owns a consultancy business called Man Cave and has had a raft of other directorships, including Pumpkin Patch, Yellow Pages and Hutchwilco.

Before being appointed in 2012, Impey was part of a 2011 NZR review of Super Rugby franchises. NZR says he is "closely involved in many broadcast and sponsorship issues".

Richard Dellabarca(Appointed)

Richard Dellabarca.
Richard Dellabarca.

The former investment banker was appointed to the NZR board last year after returning to the country from 14 years working overseas.

Has a Masters of Business Administration from Cambridge University and is a qualified barrister, solicitor and accountant.

Andrew Golightly(Elected)

Andrew Golightly. Photo / John Stone
Andrew Golightly. Photo / John Stone

A lawyer specialising in employment, dispute resolution and commercial matters.

Golightly, joined the board of the Northland Rugby Union in 2007 before taking over as chairman between 2008-14.

Golightly joined the NZR board two years ago.

Peter Kean(Appointed)

Peter Kean. Photo / Glenn Jeffrey
Peter Kean. Photo / Glenn Jeffrey

Kean has a 30-year history at major food and drinks company Lion - owner of Steinlager, one of NZR's biggest sponsors.

Managing director of what was then known as Lion Nathan between 2003-11, Kean remains with the company as managing director of the dairy and soft drinks division.
He joined the board in 2014.

Stewart Mitchell(Elected)

Stewart Mitchell.
Stewart Mitchell.

An accountant and human resource consultant by trade, Mitchell is described by NZR as having more than 20 years of experience in governance, working with councils and board positions on in both the public and private sectors.

Before getting a seat at the main table in 2014, Mitchell chaired the Canterbury Rugby Football Union between 2012-14 and was a member of the Crusaders board between 2008-14.

Stephen Morris(Elected)

Stephen Morris.
Stephen Morris.

An animal science professor at Massey University, Morris is the newest face at the NZR table. After failing to be elected to the board in 2015 he stood again this year, and six months ago, eventually got the seat he was after.

Morris was previously chairman of the Manawatu Rugby Union (2010-16) and board member of the Hurricanes (2011-12).

Wayne Peters(Maori representative)

Wayne Peters. Photo / Christine Cornege
Wayne Peters. Photo / Christine Cornege

Winston Peters' brother joined the NZR board in 2009, making him the longest-serving director. A high-profile lawyer, Peters' background in rugby includes playing for Otago, Northland, New Zealand Universities and the New Zealand Juniors.

Before taking a seat in the NZR boardroom, Peters was chairman of the Northland Rugby Union between 2006-08, during which he also had a seat on the board of the Blues.

Mark Robinson(Elected)

Mark Robinson. Photo / Photosport
Mark Robinson. Photo / Photosport

The first former professional rugby player to reach the boardroom when he was elected in April 2013, Robinson played nine games for the All Blacks during the early 2000s.

The general manager of a freight company, Robinson was chief executive of the Taranaki Rugby Union between 2007-2012.

Glenn Wahlstrom(Elected)

Glenn Wahlstrom. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Glenn Wahlstrom. Photo / Brett Phibbs

The general manager of a furniture company and former referee whose career with the whistle saw him take charge of six test matches.

Has held a number of rugby directorships, becoming an Auckland Rugby Union board member in 2003 and taking the chairman's seat in 2011, when he also became a director of the Blues. Also a former chairman of the NZ Rugby Referee selection panel.

- Addtional reporting: Simon Plumb

- NZ Herald

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 bpcf02 at 03 Dec 2016 12:06:39 Processing Time: 666ms