One of the richest men in world rugby wants to invest in New Zealand.
Montpellier billionaire Mohed Altrad has expressed an interest in New Zealand rugby, opening the door to the national body to potentially form further relationships in the Northern Hemisphere, or to a Super Rugby club keen on extracting extra, valuable revenue.
Altrad is valued by Forbes at a net worth of US$2.5 billion (NZ$3.8b). He was also ranked third on a list of most influential figures by British magazine Rugby World last month, first registering on the radar after bailing out the south of France club in 2011.
Since then, he is understood to have invested €20 million ($35m).
According to its annual report, last year alone the global Altrad Group, which now works primarily in the oil and gas industry after starting out in scaffolding, turned over €3.4 billion ($6b).
From a rugby perspective, Altrad lured successful New Zealand coach Vern Cotter and former All Blacks first five-eighth Aaron Cruden to Montpellier last season, both on annual salaries well in excess of $1m. The ambitious club lost last year's Top 14 final after leading the competition at the end of the regular season.
In an interview with the Weekend Herald, Altrad has now expressed a desire to strike a deal with NZ Rugby.
"If I can find some sort of interest in a club in New Zealand then, yes, I will do it," Altrad said.
Last year Altrad's attempt to buy a 45 per cent stake in Gloucester was knocked back by England's Premiership Rugby. Had the sale gone through, Altrad later revealed he planned to invest £10m ($19.5m).
"Unfortunately that was rejected, not for rational reasons but because some English and French clubs didn't like that Montpellier would have more solutions than themselves," Altrad said. "In the New Zealand case we would not have the same objections because we are not playing in the same competition so there is no reason for that not to happen, provided we have some shared interest such as medical jokers, academy, and whatever we can put together. I can envision this."
Altrad's intentions appear genuine. His ownership experience at Montpellier taught him rugby is no ordinary business venture.
"If we can find some sort of partnership with a club in New Zealand we have to talk rugby before equity. That's the purpose. Rugby is not a good investment. Most of the time you lose money or you win very little."
Other than Cotter and Cruden, Montpellier has other ties to New Zealand. Crusaders assistant coach Jason Ryan and Montpellier forwards coach Nathan Hines, the Australian-born Scottish international, exchanged destinations, and ideas, last year.
Most New Zealand Super Rugby franchises already have partnerships with Japanese clubs — and some in the United States — mixing commercial and player-related deals.
Cotter noted NZ Rugby's existing connections abroad, including London-based Harlequins. He believed a similar arrangement — sharing information and eventually players — could work in Montpellier.
"Whether or not that's something to explore ... it's obviously happening with New Zealand players going to Japanese clubs.
"We'd be very open to discuss that sort of thing if it was to come about. Altrad is someone who is innovative and always looking at ways to move forward."
Georgia, led by fellow New Zealander Milton Haig, use Montpellier and its stadium, built for the 2007 Rugby World Cup, to prepare for their November internationals each year.
"Montpellier is a great place to be and as a training camp for any national team," Cotter said.
"If you were in the southern hemisphere and you wanted a base in the northern, Montpellier would be great."
Altrad's signal comes at an interesting time for NZ Rugby, which is finding retention of leading talent is not getting any easier.
The polarising push for tax breaks for All Blacks was a clear, calculated move from NZ Rugby's heavy hitters. In the process, chief executive Steve Tew revealed the governing body expects to spend $5m to $7m more than it earns each season, offsetting much of the record $33.4m profit from the Lions tour which will be spread over the next 12 years.
Part of the strategy behind forming relationships with overseas clubs such as Harlequins is to, where possible, help facilitate short-term sabbaticals.
In a rapidly evolving contracting space, this could see NZ Rugby guaranteed to get a key player back.
Last week the national body also stepped in to purchase a 40 per cent stake in the battling Blues franchise; a temporary solution with yet-to-be-sourced investors expected to eventually take over.
The Weekend Herald spoke to two leading NZ Rugby figures, both of whom indicated, given these ongoing revenue challenges and the need to find creative solutions, Altrad's interest could not be dismissed.
There would be challenges. Altrad sponsors the French national team, and the European season is a long, hard slog for any player. Expectations around recruitment could be another barrier. Any formal partnership, or private investment, in a Super Rugby club would require consent from NZ Rugby.
But when a man of Altrad's wealth comes knocking, there is sure to be no shortage of mutual interest.