Richie McCaw speaks for first time on rugby's civil war

Publish Date
Friday, 24 May 2024, 7:44AM

By Gregor Paul

- Richie McCaw urges New Zealand Rugby to adopt a new governance structure based on an independent review, emphasising long-term benefits over short-term interests.
- “Change can be a bit scary at times but being brave and having the courage to do the right thing is why people are in the positions they are in, to be able to vote.”
- McCaw warns against losing the unity that has historically strengthened New Zealand rugby, from grassroots to the elite level.
- The All Blacks great highlights the potential negative impact of framing the debate as a conflict between professional players and provincial unions.
- McCaw stresses the importance of including diverse experiences on the NZR board and warns against overly restrictive criteria for board membership.
- He advocates for decisions that ensure the continued connection between professional and community rugby, preserving the game’s integrity and grassroots values.
- Former All Blacks captain Richie McCaw is a man who knows the value of legacy and the power of history, which is why he’s decided to speak publicly about the governance stand-off and urge those with a vote to think about how they will be judged in the future.

McCaw is almost 10 years retired and still his name endures, his mana pervades and his influence grows, because he captained the All Blacks to back-to-back World Cups, was three times crowned the planet’s best player and was universally recognised as the best No 7 there has ever been.

But his position in history is secured not just by what he achieved, but the way he did it – which was through extreme sacrifice, putting the team first and by believing that New Zealand rugby’s greatest strength was its unity of purpose from grassroots to All Blacks.

And it is the danger of the unity being lost, and the prospect of history judging this era poorly, that is troubling McCaw.

He, like everyone else, has seen the debate about which governance structure New Zealand Rugby (NZR) should adopt go around in circles for the last nine months and he is imploring those who have a vote to cast at next week’s special general meeting to see beyond their own needs and interests and back the governance change proposal that mostly supports the recommendations of an independent review.

“This moment in the game is similar to one or two other moments throughout our history,” McCaw told the Herald of next week’s vote.

“I have been trying to say to people, that in 30-40 years, when people look back, you want them to be able to say, ‘jeez whoever was involved made a good decision’.

“They had a fork in the road, and they took the opportunity to get it right or get it wrong and wherever you sit, we are in those shoes now.

“The big thing I would urge people that make the decision is to not just think about their own patches, but to step above that and think what is right for New Zealand rugby in the long term so it caters for the game no matter where you sit in the ecosystem.

“If you are able to do that, hopefully the right decision will be made and that is to back the expert people who have put a recommendation on how that can look.

“Change can be a bit scary at times but being brave and having the courage to do the right thing is why people are in the positions they are in, to be able to vote.”

As a former All Blacks captain who now sits on the board of New Zealand Rugby Commercial – the company set up to manage the game’s revenue-generating assets – as a representative of the New Zealand Rugby Players’ Association (NZRPA), he’s wary that the debate is being framed as a “them versus us” scenario – seen as a push by a small cohort of professional players to protect their income and power in shaping executive decision-making and strategy.

That sense of conflict has intensified because the NZRPA this week wrote to the unions to say it will withdraw its right for NZR to govern the game if the provinces vote for their own governance change proposal, which essentially preserves the current representation model.

McCaw sees that presentation of this being a battle of wills between the NZRPA and provincial unions as not only deliberately divisive, but totally wrong.

He says there is no agenda attached to the governance change proposal that he believes is the right one for NZR to adopt, as it has been created on the back of a comprehensive, independent review to which all stakeholders in the game contributed.

“This is about what is right for the game – not them versus us,” he says. “I have seen a fair bit of stuff over the last three or four years which just keeps reaffirming that we have an opportunity to get it right.

“It is not like we are trying to push our own agenda. This is something that people who have heard from all of the game – every stakeholder – have come up with and is what they think is best.

“That’s the bit people have to remember – all the feedback from everyone is put into this [Pilkington Review report] and they have come back with their findings.

“It may not 100 per cent suit your little patch, but for the good of the game, this is what people have put forward.

“You can have a debate whether they are 100 per cent right, but we all agreed they were the people in the right spot to make that call.

“This is not professional players versus the provincial unions, it is a bunch of experts who came up with something and we just want to see that implemented for the best of the game.”
To emphasise his point, he wants voting members and the New Zealand rugby fraternity to be certain that the professional players have never acted in their own interests or been disconnected from the community game.

He captained the All Blacks more than 100 times and won 148 test caps, but McCaw says he never lost sight of how important his grassroots introduction to the sport was and the values he learned there.

“We are unique in New Zealand that we have the grassroots still connected right through to the elite level and we want to see that continue,” McCaw says.

“We don’t want to see a split like other professional sports have where the elite become untouchable doing their own thing, because we have all got a connection to the community game. That is what a small country can do, and we want it to stay like that.

“I know from a professional players’ point of view, when I was on the board and through the years, that yes, we needed to make sure that we kept the professional players in New Zealand because that was the shop front.

“But it couldn’t be at the cost of the community game. We wanted to make sure that the community game – which is feeding through our next layer of Black Ferns and All Blacks and all our supporters – remains the game it was when I was a young fella.

“We always wanted to ensure that people were playing rugby for the reasons we played rugby and that the clubs which gave us our opportunities were doing what they had always done.”

And it’s this desire to protect and enhance all aspects of the game that McCaw hopes will prevail at next week’s vote.

He understands why the provinces are wary of change but doesn’t believe that voting for the review proposal will leave them disenfranchised or marginalised.

Of the many differences between the two governance proposals on the table, the most significant is that the union’s blueprint has a specific requirement for at least three NZR directors to have had three years’ experience on a provincial board.

The problem with this mandated approach, says McCaw, is that it is too narrow and potentially restrictive.

“The first thing is that if you have had three years’ experience, it doesn’t preclude you from putting your name forward.

“But you start eliminating people who might have had different experiences. People who might have been on the board of a Super Rugby club or done other things who might add just as much expertise as someone who has provincial union experience.

“The big thing is you don’t want to preclude people who might be the right people to be on the board that will serve exactly the things that you are trying to mandate.

“The skills matrix of what people will need to have to be on the board – part of it is understanding the landscape of New Zealand rugby.

“The appointments panel will be looking for that – for people who know the provincial game, the school game, the community and professional game – all of those things.

“It is important to have that experience and knowledge. To think that you will get a bunch of people who are purely commercially focused, professionally focused... that just won’t happen.

“And at the end of the day, the provincial unions still have the ultimate say. They can remove the board if they are not happy. They still have that right.”

Nor does he think that the status quo can be preserved because it doesn’t accurately reflect the variety of stakeholders in the game.

“There is more than just one lot of stakeholders and that is what the report highlighted,” he says.

“You have got schools, the clubs, the provinces, the Super Rugby clubs, professional players – there are a lot of people who make up what is New Zealand rugby and no one is 100 per cent right all the time.

“But it is how we all work together to make sure we can all function. That’s what the report highlighted – the need for a board that can weigh up all these things, all the different stakeholders and say what is best for New Zealand rugby in the long term?

“What decisions need to be made to be sure that we all thrive the best we can? We are all reliant on each other, it is not one or the other.

“The thing that gets a bit lost is that the outcome a lot of us want to see is that hopefully we will have the right people looking after every corner of the game.

“From grassroots up and to be able to do that in a way in which we all have confidence.”

This article was first published on and is republished here with permission

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