New Zealand rugby on brink of civil war with players ahead of England series

Sam Cane - New Zealand rugby on brink of civil war with players ahead of England series
Sam Cane is one of the signatories who is supporting the idea of a breakaway body - Getty Images/Alex Davidson

The threat of a civil war over future governance of the professional game in New Zealand is rising just over a month before England are to play two Tests against the All Blacks, in Dunedin and Auckland, in July.

The leading players in New Zealand are threatening to set up a breakaway body to govern the professional game in the country in a dramatic escalation of a dispute over governance review reforms with their provincial unions.

A letter from the New Zealand Rugby Players Association, which has been seen by Telegraph Sport, has been sent to the directors of the provincial unions and NZ Maori Rugby Board outlining their ultimatum ahead of a crucial vote at a special general meeting on reforms on May 30.

A number of high-profile past and present All Blacks are among the signatories, including Sam Cane, Sam Whitelock, Richie McCaw, David Kirk and Ruby Tui.

The running of the professional game in New Zealand has been under scrutiny since a governance review last year found that NZ Rugby was not fit for purpose and recommended wholesale changes including the appointment of a new board of independent directors.

The NZRPA demanded a review after initially objecting to the terms of a £96 million deal with US private equity fund Silver Lake to buy an initial 5.7 per cent stake in NZ Rugby’s commercial company.

Since then however the provincial unions in New Zealand have come up with a counter-proposal, known as ‘proposal 2’, which NZRPA claim does not adopt the necessary recommendations for change outlined by the initial governance review.

The letter warns that if the counter-proposal is passed at the SGM, then the NZRPA will effectively break away and split the professional game in two.

“Should Proposal 2 [put forward by some provincial unions] 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,” the NZRPA letter said.

“A new body will be established to govern the professional game in New Zealand. Directors appointed by the professional players will represent the players on this body and on other bodies such as NZRC [New Zealand Rugby Commercial].

“This new body, for example called ‘The Professional Rugby Tribunal’, will govern, in some sort of partnership with NZRU, the sale of media rights, the contracting of sponsors, the revenue share model, international and national competitions, the high-performance programmes and development pathways and any other activity that impacts the careers, safety, remuneration, workplace and development of professional players.

“NZRU will continue to govern alone the community and amateur game including provincial rugby, club rugby and other non-professional rugby activities.”

At the core of the dispute appears to be a power struggle, with some within the provincial unions attempting to retain control over appointments to the NZRU board, whereas the players’ representatives are demanding an independent board that has a mandate to govern on behalf of the entire game, including the professional players, the Maori board and the commercial arm of the NZRU.

“The strength of New Zealand rugby is that we have always been in the same boat, we have always been one team,” said Rob Nichol, chief executive officer of the NZRPA.

“But I have got to be honest, we have felt in recent times that the players and teams have continued to strive for excellence on the field and deliver the results we all want, off the field we have not been where we need to be. We want excellence and we are kind of ruthless about that. When an expert panel comes in and agrees with us that there has to be change, then our response is: ‘we want change.’

“What the report subtly points out is that the provincial unions are no longer the game in this country, there are a whole lot of other stakeholders and they need to be factored into the process. But make no mistake, we will get there.”

Telegraph Sport has approached New Zealand Rugby for a response.