All Blacks legend Sir John Kirwan has called for a change in leadership at the New Zealand Rugby Players Association amid the continued standoff over a potential $465 million private equity investment into NZ Rugby.
NZR and the players' union, which is led by chief executive Rob Nichol and includes several All Blacks on the board, are currently in mediation over concerns that an injection of private equity from US tech giants Silver Lake into the sport's governing body – to the tune of around $465 million for a 15 per cent stake in NZR's commercial rights – could negatively impact certain aspects of the sport in New Zealand.
More than half a dozen of the country's top players, including All Blacks captain Sam Cane, signed a letter in January addressed to NZR directors and clubs threatening to block the deal, citing concerns around the relationship with fans as well as the safety of the Māori and Pasifika game.
The two parties have since been at logger heads over the deal, with NZR boss Mark Robinson saying he is optimistic that the deal – which he says will be crucial for the organisation's financial future – will go ahead.
Kirwan, who has been an outspoken supporter of the Silver Lake deal, says the mediation shows that NZR's relationship with the players association is "broken" and places part of the blame on Nichol.
"The fundamental problem that I can see – and I've spoken to some business people, spoken to a whole lot of different people about it – I just think that the relationship is broken," Kirwan said on Sky Sport's The Breakdown.
"How can you start with mediation? You're telling me that's a relationship?"
While Kirwan didn't explicitly call for Nichol's head, he suggested it could be time for a leadership change at NZRPA.
"Maybe we just need a change. NZR's had a change, maybe the NZRPA need to have a bit of a change because I just don't think that relationship is working. We are talking a pivotal moment in the game, and yet we're not sitting around the table.
"If you get to the deal, I think everyone is starting to make their own decisions. I rang Murray Bolton, one of our most successful business people, because I wanted to know - I'm not a businessman - I said what would you do.
"I'll read you the quote: 'The deal values the All Blacks at $4.5 billion. Silver Lake has had years of experience in managing large investments and enhancing the value in many areas, including pro sports. Their interests are totally aligned with all parties. How much experience does the NZR have in managing and growing the value of such an asset? They realise they need help and this deal gives them that'."
"That's someone valuing the commercial side of our game," he added
Another wrinkle to the controversial investment is the fact that the players' collective bargaining agreement is also set to expire, meaning a new deal has to be negotiated.
It is believed NZR requires the backing of the NZRPA to proceed with the deal under terms of its current collective bargaining agreement.
Mils Muliaina, who retired from the All Blacks after winning the World Cup in 2011, was more sympathetic to the players' concerns and questioned some of NZR's shortcomings, but also agreed that investment is needed.
"Some of those factors or issues can actually be solved by talking about it," Muliaina said on The Breakdown. "There is little that's coming out of NZR as well in terms of how they're going to use that money, which perhaps is what the Players Association is saying. We want more detail in terms of that. [But] do they need to go to mediation for that?"
He added that the collective bargaining agreement coming up is perhaps also a major factor for the players, who may not be comfortable or clear on how the Silver Lake deal will be affecting them going forward.
Kirwan remained unflinching in his support for the bumper deal.
"I personally believe that the players' deal is antiquated," he said in response to Muliaina's comments. "It needs to change from a commercial point of view. If I was a player right now and I'm looking at this deal and I'm going: if this works out, these guys could take me as an individual to America and grow the commercial thing, I'm going to make more money as a player."
Two years ago, NZR signed a "revolutionary" five-year broadcasting rights deal with Sky TV reportedly worth $400 million, which saw Sky claiming a five per cent equity stake in NZR.