‘Survive then thrive’: All Blacks want to lead rugby’s new global outlook
The trickiest job in New Zealand? It used to be generally accepted that even the prime minister had it easier than the incumbent All Blacks head coach. Now, though, there is a third contender, requiring the former’s diplomatic touch and the latter’s survival instincts. To be NZ Rugby’s chief executive at this juncture in rugby history is to be caught between the devil and the deep blue Pacific.
Put yourself in Mark Robinson’s jandals for a second. On the one hand he presides over the most marketable national team in the world, which is not the worst gig. On the other he represents a country at odds over whether a chunk of NZ Rugby’s commercial operations should be sold to a US-based private equity firm. Squaring that contradictory circle – “rugby means an awful lot to our country’s identity and psyche” – will define Robinson’s stewardship, with significant implications for every other rugby-playing country in the world.
Because, make no mistake, these are critical weeks and months for rugby’s global commercial future. As with the climate emergency the clock is ticking and, having talked to various other senior officials over the weekend, the urgency and tension is mounting. “It has to happen now,” said one, referring to the renewed push to agree a streamlined global fixture calendar. “A lot of unions are hurting at the moment.”
The upshot is that everyone, not least New Zealand, will need to embrace people and/or rival unions they have often treated with a mixture of scepticism or indifference. During the era of the previous NZ Rugby chief executive, Steve Tew, the All Blacks’ attitude was mostly a blunt: ‘Take it or leave it.’ Encouraged by cash-strapped European nations to fly north outside the official window, they have long since hired themselves out at a punchy rate. Playing in Cardiff against a weakened Welsh side last Saturday, for example, was worth £2m to NZ Rugby, which may explain why the head coach, Ian Foster, took a potshot or two at the media for questioning the fixture’s legitimacy.
Playing non-lucrative away Tests in the Pacific Islands, strangely, has tended to be less of a priority. It also says a fair amount about rugby’s uneasy north-south marriage that, outside World Cups, England have faced the All Blacks once in the past seven years, a 16-15 loss at Twickenham in 2018. This lack of mutual interaction has not benefited either party, nor updated age-old prejudices on both sides, while southern hemisphere players relocating to lucrative European or Japanese leagues remains another underlying source of friction.
For many of the above reasons, the 47-year-old Robinson is an increasingly key figure. Having spoken to him twice in recent days, the first thing to say is he is far more approachable than his predecessor and many of those masquerading as European rugby’s biggest cheeses. The second is that, perhaps uniquely for a senior NZ Rugby administrator, he genuinely loves the UK. In addition to winning nine caps for the All Blacks, he studied at Cambridge University and shared in two winning Varsity matches in an era when the Light Blues won five years in a row.
Twickenham, as a result, holds fond memories and he also used to play rugby in Taranaki with Beauden and Jordie Barrett’s father, Kevin. A good enough player to have been selected on a couple of occasions ahead of Tana Umaga in the All Blacks’ midfield, he featured in the same half-decent starting backline as Christian Cullen, Doug Howlett, Jonah Lomu and Andrew Mehrtens against France in 2002.
Unusually for a leading administrator, he knows how it feels to tour around sodden, wintry European fields in the professional era with every opponent desperate to take a slice out of you.
Had it not been for his studies and bad luck with injuries, he might have had an even more decorated career but, given his nicely balanced CV, you can understand why NZ Rugby anointed him as Tew’s successor just before the world shuttered up against Covid.
Completing a deal with the US technology investment firm Silver Lake after the players’ union vetoed the initial $NZ387.5m offer remains a clear priority – “I wouldn’t be prepared to put a timescale on it but it’s heading in the right direction” – but ask what will happen if things go completely pear-shaped and his easy-going tone hardens slightly. “We’re not the kind or organisation that gives up easily. It’s the Kiwi way. We would keep searching for the opportunity. The game has many mouths to feed and we’ll have to find a way to keep doing that.”
Robinson is also smart enough to understand that even the mighty All Blacks can not stand still in changing times. In an open letter to New Zealanders in May he did not mince his words, suggesting the traditional Kiwi rugby model “is broken” and urging supporters to embrace change.
He would be instantly sacked for suggesting the national team should lose more often but knows that visiting the United States to consult NBA and NFL teams about commercial strategy and event management, as the All Blacks did last month, will be of limited value unless global rugby becomes collectively healthier.
Thrashing the US Eagles 104-14 is unlikely to woo many casual American fans and the same two teams winning the past four World Cups does not offer a perfect future growth blueprint either. “What we want to see an international environment with a greater depth and breadth of talent and competition,” says Robinson. “That has to be a vision we all aspire to. We’re really interested in what the game can look like as more of a truly global sport.”
It explains why NZ Rugby is right behind a World Cup in the US in 2031, will be in the (virtual) room this month for talks with representatives of all the major club leagues and will happily host a women’s Lions tour should the opportunity ever arise, not just to generate more income to fund their domestic grassroots but “to create more value across the whole rugby ecosystem”.
Because even Robinson and his marketable All Blacks can sense the onrushing financial chill if rugby does not pull together now. “It’s an absolutely critical time,” he says. “We want to make sure as many rugby organisations can firstly survive and then look to create some models that can really help it thrive.
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“I am optimistic we can create something with a stronger narrative around the international game but it takes a lot of consultation, listening and hard work. I don’t think anyone’s too big, at the moment, to think they’re got the answers to everything.”