New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson has attempted to instil confidence that the grassroots game will remain intact as ground-breaking investment into the national game looms.
Tensions appear to be growing between NZ Rugby and key stakeholders amid the tabled injection of $465 million from US investment firm Silver Lake into the governing body for 15 per cent share of its commercial rights.
Robinson spoke at the NZR board update in Wellington today, a matter of days after a letter from the New Zealand Rugby Players' Association – signed by chair David Kirk and chief executive Rob Nichol, along with a group of the country's top players – was revealed, citing concerns and attempting to block the deal.
The letter was dated January 29.
Among those concerns is how the provincial unions and grassroots level of the game will be impacted. The Herald spoke to PUs last week who anticipate the deal will inject as much as $50,000 into individual grassroots clubs.
However, a worry raised by the players association is unions may feel incentivised to vote in favour of the deal regardless of its safety, due to the funding temptations that are being dangled in front of them.
That can be superseded by the estimation of investment bank Jefferies, who under recon from NZR, determined Silver Lake offered the best package for a long-term financial footing for the national game.
Robinson says they have maintained strong communication with the unions and are confident there is a strong level of support, and is welcoming questions and concerns from all across the country.
"We are continuing our dialogue with the PUs at the moment and they've been really engaging, they're coming forward with different ideas around how this could all work. Broadly what we're seeing at the moment is there are good levels of support."
Robinson understands the process can be daunting given it is a first for New Zealand sport, and the biggest deal in rugby union history.
"This is a process where we want everyone in New Zealand rugby to be as comfortable as possible with what this means, it is a fundamental change," he said. "It is something that can be hugely positive to the game, we understand there's a lot of emotion associated with it and that's a good reflection of the care people have for the game in our country.
"The thing we are most excited about is setting aside significant amount of capital into what we call our legacy fund to build on over time, to then re-invest back into the game at all levels. That could take some time … but it is something that we believe is hugely exciting for the game and could see investment at significant levels right across.
"Let's have good honest, open discussions around this. But let's not lose sight of the fact the game needs to change and we need to think really long and hard – if we want the game to be the way it's always been in terms of its place in New Zealand history – we'll have to reposition the game and reposition the way we approach it."
All Blacks legend Sir John Kirwan shared the thoughts of Robinson earlier this week, saying the investment gives rugby union in New Zealand financial security and "lets us look at the grassroots of the game".
"Our game is in trouble – players aren't playing, clubs are dying around the country," he said.
The Herald earlier revealed that of the $40 million that would be immediately injected into the game, 75 per cent will go to the community level and strengthening up balance sheets, with a proposal for the players to receive $6.5 million.
Mediation with the players' association is beginning on Wednesday.
Robinson anticipates a deal to be completed at the end of April, and hopes to have the support of the NZRPA.