Mark Robinson has been handed the biggest job in New Zealand sport.

The departure of long-time New Zealand Rugby CEO Steve Tew comes at a time when rugby is facing some major challenges in an era of global economic superpowers, digital disruption and falling numbers of youth participation.

Yesterday, NZ Rugby announced that Robinson – a rugby administrator, businessman and former All Black – has been appointed to take over the role from next year.

So who is Mark Robinson? And what is his plan to combat the challenges faced by rugby's governing body? Here's what you need to know about the first former All Black to take the top job at NZ Rugby:

Advertisement

The job criteria

NZ Rugby chairman Brent Impey said Robinson was chosen from 85 candidates and that he was picked based on six criteria:

1. A "deep knowledge of New Zealand and what it takes to be a Kiwi".

2. A "deep love of rugby".

3. Innovation and digital technology – "We all know no matter what industry that we work in, that disruption is an everyday activity these days."

4. Commercial – "We need to drive revenue … These are challenging times when it comes to making sure that the programmes that we want to put into to place in all sorts of spheres, that we've got the money to do so."

5. "Leadership and mana"

6. "Connectivity" – the ability to relate to staff, sponsors, stakeholders, media, etc.

The shadow of Steve Tew

Tew will depart as one of NZ Rugby's most celebrated bosses, having served with the organisation for 25 years, including the last 12 years as CEO.

Advertisement

One of Tew's legacies will be overseeing the growth of the All Blacks to its highest point in its history, not just in terms of its success on the field but also in the development of its brand globally. The women's game in New Zealand has also seen a rapid rise under Tew's watch.

That style of trickle-down economics has come to define much of Tew's reign – the strength and financial viability of the All Blacks will eventually trickle down to other aspects down the NZ Rugby chain.

However, that has left some other areas like the ever-changing broadcast environment, the evolving technological landscape, and growing the game at a grassroots level with some room for improvement.

Steve Tew and Steve Hansen with the Bledisloe Cup. Photo / Photosport
Steve Tew and Steve Hansen with the Bledisloe Cup. Photo / Photosport

Robinson praised Tew for his contribution to the organisation over the years and thanked him for helping him transition into the role.

"It's important to acknowledge Steve and thank him. I think Steve's done an amazing job in the last 12 years. He's been a fantastic leader of this organisation and is renowned all over the world wherever we go with rugby, with a huge amount of mana."

Mark Robinson's CV

Robinson, 45, was born and bred in Taranaki and is married with three kids. He was a former player in the amateur and professional era, and has had plenty of experience in rugby administration roles after his rugby career.

Robinson said he was delighted to be able to have the opportunity to help grow the sport, something he is deeply passionate about.

"Being in a position to be able to continue to help foster it, grow it, and respond to some of the challenges which we face in the near future with all the challenges of a changing world that are apparent, that really spins my wheels," he said at a press conference announcing his appointment.

When asked if his former career as a professional rugby player, especially one with experience at the top level, will help him in his new job, Robinson said that it will provide "some insights" but is not something he will be relying on.

"I guess it gives you some insights," he said. "I've certainly got an appreciation of playing the game at all levels and that helps you see certain situations through a certain lens which can be helpful.

"But to be honest, this role is so broad and vast with such complexity that you're going to have to rely on a little bit more than just being a former player to be able to work through challenges. It's got a part to play but it's certainly not something I'll be relying on solely that's for sure."

Playing career

- Played for Taranaki, Wellington, Canterbury, Crusaders, the All Blacks, and stints in Japan and the UK
- Played nine tests for the All Blacks (between 2000-2002)

Rugby administration

- CEO of Taranaki Rugby (2007-2012)
- NZ Rugby board since 2013 – head of the rugby committee
- Executive council of World Rugby

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

The challenges facing NZ Rugby

After a glowing introduction from Impey and a short personal spiel, Robinson was quizzed by the media on the several challenges facing the national sport's governing body.

"Challenges", it turns out, was quite a buzzword during Robinson's introduction, a possible insight into how crucial and difficult his job could prove to be.

Player retention

The financial power of the north, along with emerging economic might of rugby nations such as Japan, has seen several All Blacks opt to take their careers overseas, a trend that Robinson admits has "gathered momentum in the last four or five [years]".

When asked if keeping New Zealand's top players in the country was a major obstacle, Robinson replied with one word: "Absolutely."

"I think we have been for some time," he continued. "We know the economics around the world don't favour us in this space. We're doing work behind the scenes with commercial modelling on different projects to see what we can do to assist in that area

"But that's something that has been happening for some time now. In fact, probably the last 10 or 15 years to be honest. But it's certainly gathered momentum in the last four or five it feels like."

Robinson said there are challenges in this area which have to be worked on quickly, but added that it isn't a "doomsday situation".

"In the short term it's going to mean to work really hard to retain the talent that we can. Keep developing them, keep the best possible coaches here so that we've got great environments for players.

"It's not always all about the money. It's about opportunity for our young players. And that's why we've got to make sure our environments are great.

"It's not a doomsday sort of situation we're in. We just need to recognise it. We've got some challenges we need to work especially quickly on. I'm delighted with the base we've got to work from, as I said, some of the achievements we have there and the team of people we have around us.

"I'm excited by it and not daunted by it. We just have to get moving quickly and get in to our work."

Grassroots

The falling numbers of youth participation in rugby is perhaps one of the most alarming trends to have developed in the sport over the last few years.

Robinson echoed what five of the country's top sporting codes said earlier this month with the introduction of a new campaign for youth sport – the need to make the game more accessible.

"There's certainly challenges in that area of the game (grassroots)," Robinson said. "I think we're responding quite quickly to some of the initiatives that the participation plan [that's been] initiated in the last six months or so.

"The challenge is to move quite quickly, creating different formats of the game that make the game more accessible. Not being so rigid around sets of rules, numbers of players that have to be on the field. I guess making the game as open and accessible as possible seems to be critical to our future in that space.

"Overall we've got challenges but I think we've started to shift the dial a little bit in terms of acknowledging that. And now we've got to move really quickly to make sure that that takes a hold in our communities and our provinces and clubs understand it. And hopefully we can sort of grow in a new era of participation in our area."

Steve Tew, Mark Robinson, Farah Palmer and Bill Beaumont after New Zealand was announced as the winning bid for Women's Rugby World Cup 2021. Photo / Photosport
Steve Tew, Mark Robinson, Farah Palmer and Bill Beaumont after New Zealand was announced as the winning bid for Women's Rugby World Cup 2021. Photo / Photosport

Women's rugby

While rugby participation among boys have fallen, girls' participation has grown at a steady rate. At the same time, the public's appetite for women's rugby has grown to an all-time high.

This is an area that provides "huge opportunities" for NZ Rugby, said Robinson.

"Obviously the growth ... has been one of the real highlights of the organisation in the last couple of years. [It's now about] how we continue to provide the right environments for the game to flourish on all levels."

He said the upcoming 2021 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand is a chance to grow the game both locally and globally even further.

"It's a fantastic opportunity to leverage the game in a major way in our biggest market here in Auckland and obviously north to Whangarei which will be huge for the country I think. And will really start to ensure in the subconscious of New Zealanders that women's rugby is a fantastic sport in its own right.

"And I think it will inspire a whole new generation of young girls to want to get involved in the game and position us really nicely for the future."

Growing the game globally

When it came to NZ Rugby's role in helping grow the sport globally, especially among New Zealand's neighbouring Pacific countries, Robinson said it was something the organisation needs to work on with World Rugby.

"We have partners in World Rugby that we have to work closely in that sort of space obviously," he said.

"Not that we can't do things independently of that. But in terms of the major things that seem to be affecting the unions in the Pacific the most at the moment relate to accessing the best of their talent and playing the best possible competitions possible.

"And we could do better on both counts there. So yeah there will be conversations that we will look to continue to have."

Robinson, similarly to Steve Hansen, pointed to the disparity between the All Blacks and Tonga in last weekend's test in Hamilton as a concern.

"I think we saw on Saturday that it's concerning for the international game to have fixtures like that when we know that Tonga has so much more to offer. And so do the other Pacific Islands to offer the international game and how much vibrancy they add to our game.

"If World Rugby wants to be a truly global game, then we need all of those tier two unions to be as competitive as possible and to be able to grow other tier two unions so that we have in time more teams competing at a World Cup to be truly projected into that global space.

"Around what we can do domestically on our own, we have a whole lot of things around our own commitments and calendars and player welfare and all that sort of thing that we have to weigh up with that. But it would be nice to do more."