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Rumours - Turmoil - Inside Counties Manukau Rugby

Courtesy of Counties Manukau Sport Monthly

Speculation about Counties Manukau Rugby’s off the field problems is rife.

Chief executive Gary Wilton’s resignation comes after a hefty financial year loss, while NPC attendances and the success of the new Chiefs franchise has been mixed. Wayne Watson asks CMRFU chair and acting chief executive Rod Gabb where the union is at and what does the near future look like?

A grey cloud is hovering over Pukekohe Stadium. Rumours, most of them negative, zing around like lightning bolts. Depending on who you talk to, Counties Manukau Rugby is in - or is close to - off the field turmoil.

Professionalism has not been kind to the region. Outrageous spending, poor business planning, ticket prices and chief executive resignations are seeing the local game slide, pessimists say. But wait. Financial accounts suggest a turnaround. After three years of finanical gloom Counties Manukau Rugby are, secretly, on the up.

Counties Manukau Rugby Football Union chair and acting chief executive Rod Gabb certainly thinks so. He does not deny the union have struggled financially in the last three years, and openly provides annual reports to mull over, but he dismisses cries that the CMRFU are on the brink of ruin.

"We haven’t been as smart as we could have in some areas but we have got a very good (administration) team," he says. Despite all of the negative banter, Gabb is excited. He has feeling, real passion, about Counties Manukau and the future.

The union have waded through any uncertainty of professionalism, have good support from sponsors, are building a healthy liaison with Super 12 franchise the Chiefs and have a strong base of players to regain a top four NPC place.

So where exactly is Counties Manukau Rugby at? Are the rumours true? Have the union been careless with money, as talk of spending $30,000 on ground security suggests? Gabb, in a very open interview, seems as tired of the rumours as anyone else. He appears comfortable in answering the tricky questions and honestly states where some things could be done better.

Annual reports confirm Counties Manukau Rugby have lost more than $350,000 in the last three years. Total finance statements read something like this: $7,099 loss 1993, $77,410 profit 1994, $12,230 profit 1995, $88,607 loss 1996 and $86,376 1997. Last year hit rock bottom with a loss of 186,000.

However, rumours of outrageous expenditure like that $30,000 being spent on security have been denied. Gabb says it costs the union $2500-$3000 each match day for security, half of that alleged $30,000. "You need security. What if some one knocked Jonah Lomu over the head...but $30,000, that’s totally untrue."

Despite the reasons, CMR went from an accumulated base of $309,000 in late 1995 to $51,000 in the red last year. This year - success. Gabb is predicting a $10,000 profit, which equates to a $196,000 turnaround in 12 months. A beefed-up sponsorship deal from Lion Red has greatly helped CMR coffers but streamlining costs, including reducing full-time staff to six, has also played a part.

Overall sponsorship was $756,000 in 1999; $123,000 up on last year. Taking that difference into account, Gabb and co have still sought savings close to $75,000 (including $10,000 profit). Next year he wants a profit of more than $200,000.

Counties Manukau are not lonely when it comes to losing money in the professional era. Most first division provinces outside the Super 12 bases are struggling. Gabb is not overally concerned about his rivals though. He wants to give his own union a haircut and is confident they are using the right clippers.

All of this talk about money has coincided with the sudden resignation of chief executive Gary Wilton. His 18-month stint ended sharply in early September, when strong vibes (unofficial mind you) were circling of displeasure with Wilton. Yet, Gabb emphatically denies Wilton was pushed.

It forced the union to review their CEO post and only in early October did they advertise for a replacement. Gabb says the response to advertisement was incredible, with a large number of people forwarding CVs. The successful applicant is expected to be named in mid-November.

"It shows there is a lot of interest in Counties Manukau Rugby," he continues. "People want to be part of it. We’ve got an exciting product, a good brand and a very good team." That structural review has also seen the rugby development section reduce its personnel from three to two following the resignation of Chris Lett. His position was not filled.

One issue CMR’s new boss will have to tackle is below-budget attendance figures. Crowds this season were on a par with last year’s NPC average of 4000, at least 25 per cent lower than ideal. Ticket prices, location and a lack of passion have been tossed around as possible contributors.

Gabb dismisses two of those claims and adds the location issue may reach a head when or if the Pacific arena proposal comes to fruition. The union have spoken to the arena’s steering committee and have asked them to call again when a feasibility study has been completed.

CMRFU’s acting boss has personal opinions but says it will be the union’s stakeholders - mainly clubs - who will decide where the Steelers play in the future. In the meantime, CMR may have to appeal to the Franklin District Council to upgrade Pukekohe Stadium for the new millennium. "The Pacific arena is not expected to be completed until 2002, so we have two seasons to go before we consider moving to Manukau."

Claims of NPC ticket prices being too high for the area have also been dismissed. Gabb says match day prices are comparable to other first division provinces, though he admits the union could be smarter with season packages.

For the record, a covered stand NPC ticket bought on match day cost $25 this season. Embankment rates were $10 (adults) and $5 (children).

Tickets purchased before match day cost $22 (covered) and $8 (embankment). Four season passes were offered, including a $150 big daddy for all Pukekohe Stadium matches and a $99 deal for NPC games.

A marketing initiative to give away 3000 free passes to school children had mixed results but it was successful enough to go with again next season. "The potential is there to build on for next season. We thought if we invited children in for free, parents may come along too. We have the philosophy that the Steelers playing at Pukekohe Stadium should be for the family - without them, we won’t be the union we are currently moving towards being."

That family-type philosophy has led to a rethink about the secondary schools structure. The union’s decision to take power away from the Counties Manukau Secondary Schools Association late last year caused huge friction and efforts are now being made to come to some compromise.

A structure involving club coaches and school players is being looked at. However, the matter is still be discussed inhouse. "We need to get in and support schools’ coaching staff," Gabb adds. "Get the kids involved and get their role models out there (to schools)."

Gabb is confident those role models will be back again to play next year. In fact, he cannot think of one player leaving the Steelers (outside retirement).

"Players have shown great loyalty and we thank them for that. There is a lot of pride and passion out here. We want to see our own home grown talent emerge and don’t want to be an Otago full of Aucklanders."

All parties will get a taste of Super 12 rugby again early next year with two home matches confirmed - a pre-season game against the Highlanders (Saturday, February 12) and a championship fixture with the Waratahs (Sunday, April 9).

The change from the Blues to Chiefs is expected to be beneficial medium term, though Gabb confirms Counties Manukau did not lose financially this year. However, next season, their second, may be more financially challenging.

To Gabb and co it is all a challenge. But he is optimistic. He says Counties Manukau Rugby is moving forward and is confident the union will turn doubters around.

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