Rugby stoush: Provincial unions hit back at Players' Association

Stakeholders will vote on a new leadership structure at NZR at a special meeting next week. Two...
Stakeholders will vote on a new leadership structure at NZR at a special meeting next week. Two competing proposals have been tabled. Photo: RNZ

By Joe Porter 

Provincial unions say the Players' Association is trying to bully them into accepting New Zealand Rugby's proposed governance reforms.

The Players' Association (NZRPA) is threatening to split from NZR and set up a new body to control the professional game if changes recommended by an independent review last year aren't adopted at a special general meeting on May 30.

The game's stakeholders will vote on a new leadership structure next week. 

The first proposal, put forward by RNZ chair Dame Patsy Reddy, calls for all members of the board to be independent, as advised by last year's governance review, The Pilkington Report, and to adopt the report's findings in full. 

But some provincial unions have drawn up another plan (proposal two), which demands that at least three of the nine members have two years' experience on one of their boards.

The Players' Association, headed by Rob Nichol, is vehemently against this.

"Should proposal two be adopted, or the status quo prevail, the professional players will no longer pass to NZRU, via a collective employment agreement, the right to govern the professional game," NZRPA said in a letter released to media.

Nichol told RNZ the provincial unions' model would mean "the provincial unions will control via different means the actual process to appoint the board and therefore the board".

However, Wellington Rugby chair Russell Poole said claims the PUs' proposal doesn't align with the principles of the independent report weren't true.

"We have openly taken on board the ideal of an independently selected, appointed board. So anything that says something else is absolutely untrue and that's the worst part of the NZRPA document yesterday - it has so many lies in it, so many things that are factually incorrect.

"There is no difference between proposal one and proposal two on how people are elected and the process that they go through.

"The difference is that in proposal two, the provincial unions have a line in there that says that three members on the NZR board at any given time must have spent some time on a provincial rugby board.

"Given the fact that one of the roles of that NZR board is to look after the game on behalf of the 150,000 participants, and that's just the players, not the infrastructure and other people that go around that, I don't think that's unfair."

Nichol and the NZRPA believe the game in this country is struggling and told RNZ the provincial unions' proposal was unacceptable.

"We all accepted the report, we all accepted the findings that the governance model was not fit for purpose. To get to this stage and then turn around and say 'No we just want to keep the status quo' - we can't afford to do that.

"The game's in trouble, it needs support, it needs help, it needs expertise and we need an independent board."

Poole said the PUs had tried to speak with the NZRPA about their concerns.

"We've worked really hard to negotiate in good faith with everybody. We've spoken at length with the NZR board, the Māori rugby board and with Pasifika. We've attempted to engage with the NZRPA, but that wasn't successful.

"It's just a shame that the NZRPA has picked what can be described as an inflammatory position for such a constitutional, democratic vote that's due on the 30th."

Poole described the Players' Association's threat to split with NZR if governance reforms don't go ahead as needless and unhelpful.

"Irresponsible is a word that comes to mind. Unnecessary is another one. It smacks of, 'If I don't get my own way I'm going to take my toys, my bat and my ball and go somewhere else'.

"It's an unnecessary reaction and in our view an overaction."

The NZR board, led by Dame Patsy, are committed to proposal one, with Reddy earlier saying she would resign if the plan wasn't accepted at next week's special meeting.

While not certain, Poole believes the PUs' proposal will prove more popular at the meeting. 

"Early indications are that proposal two has sufficient support. But proposal one goes up first and there will be some unions that will choose to vote yes/yes.

"They'll vote yes for proposal one and if that doesn't get through they'll vote yes for proposal two because they don't want the status quo.

"So quietly confident, but many a politician has said that leading up to an election and didn't get in."

The governance review was commissioned in December 2022 after NZR secured a $200 million cash injection by selling a stake in its commercial business to US private equity firm Silver Lake.

The Pilkington Report said NZR's leadership structure was not fit for purpose in the modern age.

- additional reporting by Reuters