The evolution of NZR under Steve Tew
In 2006 the showpiece final in all of New Zealand domestic sport, the NPC Rugby final between Waikato and Wellington, contained eleven current All Blacks- greats such as Mils Muliaina, Tana Umaga, Ma’a Nonu, Piri Weepu, Conrad Smith and Jerry Collins were among that number. The corresponding 2018 final, featuring the two teams who have won more than three-quarters of all NPC top tier titles, Auckland and Canterbury, featured a couple of bit-part All Blacks in George Bridge and the almost unknown Brett Cameron. This discrepancy had its beginnings the moment the All Blacks were bundled out of the 2007 Rugby World Cup by France. This singular event became the catalyst for a sea change in the way NZR (NZ Rugby) would run Rugby Union in this country.
When Steve Tew recently announced his departure as CEO of NZR, it was a massive moment. Tew has overseen New Zealand becoming the only country to win consecutive Rugby World Cups and the All Blacks evolving into one of the world’s most famous sports teams; outside of the Commonwealth even.
What are we, the NZ Rugby public, to make of his overall legacy from the time of his appointment in early 2008? It is clearly double-edged, because if the mandate from his own board was to leave no stone unturned in transforming the All Blacks into an elite, stand-alone entity for NZR that generates piles of cash turning them into the darlings of every sponsor they are in partnership with and subsequently delivered two unprecedented, back-to-back World Cups, then Steven Tew has succeeded amazingly well. His tenure ran the length of a period of such dominance for the All Blacks that it turned a sporting public's angst into relief and then elation, as well upping the gravitas and earning potential of ‘Brand NZ’- whatever that might entail, but you can’t argue against the fact it’s an avalanche. There was also no small matter of NZR’s Balance Sheet returning to profit in 2013 after a record loss of $15.9 million in 2009- in retrospect probably the most significant achievement of his time as CEO. Due to his financial acumen and devoted advocacy of all things All Black in top-level corporate boardroom affairs, it’s a deserved ‘A’ for All Blacks rating.
However what of the legacy on the real side of rugby- the domestic and grassroots side that Tew leaves for the NZ rugby public, sans the All Blacks? Forget Adidas and the historically shady AIG (fined US1.6 billion for financial improprieties in the USA in 2006) - the rugby public wins the biggest stakeholder mantle hands down. By about the length of the Desert Road. Is it they who have been marginalised and somewhat sold off via a negligent policy towards the growth and sustainability of grassroots and provincial rugby in exchange for World Cup or bust success during Tew’s reign?
If the most important thing to the majority of the dyed-in-the-wool NZ rugby fraternity and not the fly-by-nighters who go along to an All Blacks test primarily for the experience and to take selfies with the Haka in the background, is a fostering and improvement of the grassroots and domestic programme, including the NPC/Mitre 10 Cup and the Ranfurly Shield, then Steve Tew gets a ‘C minus’ at best.
Over the past ten years or thereabouts, the premier trophy on the New Zealand domestic sporting landscape and one with a rich, fabled history dating back almost 120 years, the Ranfurly Shield has been allowed to lapse by NZR into an almost B-Grade domestic rugby sidelight. Among so many glaringly bad examples of scheduling ineptitude, in 2016 when Waikato defended the Shield against another province with a great history in the competition, Taranaki, the game began at the hopeless hour of 4.35pm on a Sunday afternoon. I was at the match and there would have been more at the Morrinsville fleamarket that weekend. Anyone at NZR with a bit of foresight should have figured that match had the potential for a much bigger gate with a 2.30pm start. The game concluded in darkness and with plenty of people having high-tailed it by the final whistle. A depressing anti-climax to what should have been a great occasion.
And while Tew, the champion of the corporates, has fussed over the All Blacks and let the Ranfurly Shield and the once excellent NPC slide into increasing irrelevance, he has also presided over an era where secondary school rugby has become an oval ball ‘Lord of the Flies’; where the ‘haves’ got stronger and got who they wanted, whenever they wanted. And what did the Grand Overlord do? Nothing. That was until the media made such a rightful fuss and all involved realised the problem wasn’t going to swept under any carpet anytime soon.
To pinpoint exactly when NZR decided pretty much everything else would be collateral damage in making the All Blacks the undisputed kings of the rugby world, one must go back to the abject 2007 World Cup quarter-final defeat to France- a fifth consecutive World Cup without being champions. Even a rest and rotation policy, dreamed up in 2006 in an attempt to ensure success with freshened players from after the 2007 Super Rugby competition and All Blacks’ lead-up matches, was a complete disaster.
And how that 2007 quarter-final defeat hurt and rankled. Badly. The situation had in fact become so untenable that about the same time Steve Tew began his CEO role following the ‘07 Cup, NZR took the drastic step of commissioning the subsequently disgraced Russell McVeagh to produce an audit and recommendations for what went ‘wrong’ in the lead-up to, and at the 2007 Cup. It felt like ‘a baby out with the bath water’ moment.
In the end, a forty-page document was tabled at no doubt massive cost, when the reality was that if the All Blacks had set up properly for a drop kick without last second panic or had a decent Plan B in the loss to France, they would have likely won. There was some rich irony from within the document. An observation from a section called Key Learnings suggested that: ‘the winning of a RWC is not a critical commercial goal and nor is it one which stakeholders see as essential to the continued health of the game in New Zealand… the view of a majority of those we have consulted is that the NZRU overemphasised its importance. The RWC finals are knock-out matches (with all the uncertainties that entails) and occur only once in four years. Professional sport is not "fair" and results cannot be guaranteed.’ Plainly, NZR chose to give this particular point an extremely wide berth. On the contrary, ensuring that future All Blacks victories in Rugby World Cups would be the only real barometer by which the state of Rugby Union in this country could be quantified as being successful is what resulted.
This was because NZR paid far less attention to points in the Russell McVeagh review which elaborated on the pitfalls of overemphasising the focus on World Cups, and instead took far more notice of a section in the report which spoke of ‘aligning the All Blacks and the NZRU high performance unit structurally to ensure the long term sustained success of the All Blacks.’ This had consequences for provincial unions and even for the Super Rugby franchises in having their All Blacks withdrawn at often not a lot of notice for national team ‘reconditioning’ requirements.
It is likely true also that the media and general public played a part in this World Cup obsession by taking the failures so much to heart that in the end NZR probably felt almost compelled to adopt a World Cup or nothing mentality. Unfortunately the outcome was that domestic rugby came to be de-prioritised and that historical domestic competitions with previously huge mana have now ended up as decidedly second rate. This anomaly though, is entirely NZR’s fault alone.
To understand better how little NZR came to value both the NPC/Mitre 10 Cup and the Ranfurly Shield, a look at a document that appears to have been written in 2016 (no date is viewable), titled ‘2020: A Bright Future for Rugby’ contains six key focus areas (Trawling through official documents, the word ‘key’ crops up ad nauseum).The first one reads ‘All Blacks and other national teams winning pinnacle events’. No surprises there. What is a surprise is by the time you arrive at the fifth focus area, there has yet to be any mention at all of a policy on fostering provincial rugby. The fifth point states ‘Rugby is the sport of choice in wider Auckland’- and then nothing follows this-beyond bizarre. On to point six: That one relates to a desire that the British and Irish Lions series is a success on and off the field. That tour took place in 2017. 2020 was still three years off.
Basically NZR use nothing throughout the aforementioned document but a load of ambiguous, jargon-leaden, double-dutch phraseology in an apparent attempt to brainwash us into thinking they really care about anything other than the All Blacks and elitism. Even worse, these were their present-day ‘plans’ for growth and development for provincial rugby, as searched for on the official NZR site: _____ That’s right. Zilch, nada, nil. There is something that goes: ‘At the top is the Vision. The Vision of rugby Inspiring and Unifying New Zealanders.’ Holy heck, who wrote that tripe? And how much did they get paid? We were supposed to find out exactly what that grandiose statement actually meant at another page called ‘The Scoreboard’. The problem being that no such page actually existed on the site. How utterly convenient.
Naturally, professional rugby union is a business and sponsors get what sponsors want. But this does not mean that an administrative body should aspire to an almost solely elitist mandate, as NZR appear to do. A lot of what NZR does with administering rugby should be for the benefit of its core support, by way of looking at ways for how they could create a top-draw provincial competition. There would be no further need for the basket case of Super Rugby then, either. The sport should never be run SOLELY for the benefit of great wealth, the corporates and all the bandwagoners. The multinationals were never there in the tough times. I for one do not care if we miss out on winning how ever many World Cups if it would mean that our best players are used for making our provincial competition what it could and should be. After all, could you ever imagine any EPL football clubs releasing their best players for national team conditioning and then telling Manchester City and Manchester United to shove off? Never in your life. Although here unfortunately NZR control the provincial purse strings, so admittedly the dynamic is rather different to the autonomy of mega-wealthy English football clubs.
For all his success at making money for NZR, Steve Tew wasn’t exactly a beacon on the people welfare front, either. Two instances that spring to mind being the mystery around the departure of former NZR general manager Neil Sorensen, and some bordering on stunningly naïve remarks in the wake of the Losi Filipo violent, multiple-assault case. What Tew said in the wake of the Filipo situation in 2016 was: ‘150,000 young people play rugby every weekend across New Zealand, so it’s inevitable some will get in trouble. We’ve got to accept we have young men who will make mistakes’. No doubt he would wish he could have said it all a bit differently.
It was common knowledge that Neil Sorensen had trauma from his past that he bravely carried with him in his role at NZR. You don’t really need to be of the calibre of Poirot to work out there were failings on behalf of NZR in the tone and rhetoric contained in the language they put out in their responses to some unsavoury happenings in 2016, including the Filipo incident. One can only imagine how much the initial flippancy and tardiness with which the incidents were treated must have vexed and likely upset Sorensen- how could he justify working for an organisation that wouldn’t take seriously the types of bullying, abusive, illegal acts of another that had tarnished his very own personal life?
History will likely judge Steve Tew pretty favourably. The cards did fall nicely for him, too- the All Blacks embarked on perhaps the greatest extended run of dominance in their history not long after Tew began as CEO. Does he deserve to be judged extremely favourably though?
I would say I am conflicted on him as a leader, but on his legacy? No. He didn’t do nearly enough to foster the heartbeat of rugby in New Zealand- the heartland. Because whichever way you look- from falling junior numbers, to club amalgamations, to the wasteland of the NPC/Mitre 10 Cup and woefully inadequate promotion and scheduling of big Ranfurly Shield matches, Steve Tew and NZR have dropped the ball…badly.