New Zealand rugby in danger of split as provinces win bitter vote

A sign bearing the logo of New Zealand Rugby in Wellington (Ryland James)
A sign bearing the logo of New Zealand Rugby in Wellington (Ryland James)

A bid for wholesale reform of New Zealand rugby's governing body was rejected by heartland unions on Thursday, threatening to throw the game into disarray in the rugby-mad nation.

Months of bubbling discord reached a head at a special general meeting in the capital Wellington, where the 26 provincial unions voted for their watered-down proposal that retains much of their power.

It raises the prospect of professional players including members of the All Blacks forming their own breakaway governing body, something they last week threatened to do.

New Zealand Rugby itself and the professional players' association backed a different proposal that would have loosened the grip of the provinces.

A scathing independent review last year said that New Zealand Rugby's governance model was not fit for purpose and recommended sweeping changes.

Speaking after the vote, Rob Nichol, chief executive of the players' association, told AFP: "It was a great opportunity for the game to make the changes required.

"It's incredibly unfortunate we haven't taken that opportunity," he added, without speaking about the breakaway threat.

Speaking to local media, Nichol reaffirmed the association's intention to split from NZR.

"We want to put something together where we come together to make sure we make really good decisions for pro rugby," he said.

"What we won't do is trust New Zealand Rugby under this government structure to go off and make those decisions by themselves."

Crucially, the unions will retain their current powers to decide three seats on the nine-strong governing board. The defeated proposal had sought to have it elected independently.

"We have agreed to embrace some change, but to go to an independent board would have completely given away any power that we had," said Canterbury Rugby Union chair Peter Winchester.

"We need to unite and make the game as good as it can be."

Former All Blacks forward Arran Pene, who supported the defeated proposal, called it "a kick in the rear end".

"It's disappointing," he said.

"We love this game, but to some extent Rome is burning, so we need to get on with things."

Rowena Duncum, speaking for the unions, said getting their way would protect the interests of 150,000 amateur rugby players across New Zealand.

"The heart of the game remains anchored in the people who play it," she said in a statement.

"The sun will rise on the games this weekend, as it always has," she added.

"150,000 people will be out on the playing fields, and the provincial unions will continue their work, unchanged."

But this is unlikely to be the end of the matter.

The New Zealand Herald called it "civil war" and asked: "What now for the future of the game?"