Rugby: ORFU keen to be stakeholder in privatised Highlanders

Richard Kinley
Richard Kinley
The Chiefs have announced a private partnership and the Highlanders are set to go on the block next year.

The Otago Rugby Football Union is keen to be a stakeholder in the southern franchise, but whether the union has the financial muscle to get involved is still open to question although any discussion is months away.

Yesterday, the New Zealand Rugby Union announced it had granted a seven-year licence to a new entity to operate the Chiefs franchise until 2020.

The groups includes private investors from Taranaki, Waikato and elsewhere while unions Counties-Manukau, Bay of Plenty, King Country, Taranaki, Thames Valley and Waikato are also partners, with an initial investment of $3.3 million.

The involvement of Taranaki means that union leaves the Hurricanes. The Chiefs will play two games in New Plymouth next year.

The NZRU said yesterday the Highlanders were being considered for privatisation next year.

Last month, Highlanders general manager Roger Clark said a board meeting in February would consider the process.

Otago Rugby Football Union general manager Richard Kinley said although nothing had been discussed by the union's board, from a philosophical point of view the Otago union would be keen to be a stakeholder in the franchise.

''Our philosophy is that having a franchise in your region offers players the best pathway to getting to play at the next level,'' he said.

''If as a player you have aspirations to play at that next level of footy then from our perspective we want them playing down here. We want to give our players the outlets to be the best they can be.''

Kinley said a franchise in Dunedin should only inspire players to play better in the Otago jersey and have a chance to get into the Highlanders.

''You look at someone like Hayden Parker, who came down from North Otago to play in Dunedin, stayed here in Dunedin and has now made it into the Highlanders.''

The union may be keen to get involved in the franchise but money could be one stumbling block.

The union flirted with bankruptcy early last year and, although it managed to stay in business, it still has little in the way of financial reserves, after fighting to clear a $2 million debt.

Kinley admitted that could be an issue but there had been various models to the four franchises which have been privatised.

With the Chiefs getting a private licence, four New Zealand franchises are now in private hands. Only the Highlanders are left to go on sale.

All the privatised franchises have been bought by businessmen and provincial unions. Rugby Southland general manager Brian Hopley said the union had never discussed the issue of investing in the Highlanders as the NZRU had never signalled that was going to happen.

North Otago Rugby Football Union chief executive Colin Jackson said the union was not in a financial position to invest in the franchise.

One other possible investor could be Dunedin Venues Management Ltd as a shareholding in the Highlanders would keep the side playing at Forsyth Barr Stadium for the foreseeable future.

Private investors market teams and promote matches and keep sponsorship and gate income. The NZRU will continue to pay wages for players and coaches out of its broadcasting money.

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