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New Zealand CEO talks All Blacks, Australia, South Africa relationship

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This article originally appeared on Stuff and is reproduced with permission

New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson might consider a career in bridge building when his days running a football code conclude.

After spending recent weeks working hard to rebuild the relationship with trans-Tasman partners Australia, attention then turned to the delicate task of persuading South Africa to remain part of the Rugby Championship.

Neither have been entirely easy propositions, with egos, agendas and self-interest figuring in the equation, but, then again, his is not an easy job.

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NZR CEO Mark Robinson. (Getty)

It is currently being made even tougher by the flak flying over the ongoing struggles of the All Blacks as they work through arguably their worst period in the professional era.

Robinson, in an interview with Stuff at his Sandton hotel in Johannesburg, did not want to comment in any detail on the missteps of his iconic national team and any further moves looming on the coaching front.

We asked politely, and he declined equally politely, saying only that the organisation remained firmly behind Ian Foster and his team heading into the rematch against the Springboks at Ellis Park early Sunday (AEST).

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Mark Robinson talks with Steve Hansen during an All Blacks captain’s run. (Getty)

His only additional comment on the All Blacks – it has to be noted NZ Rugby appointed, and then reappointed, the coaching group – was this, and it was telling: “Our focus is on supporting the team into this weekend as much as we can. We will communicate at some stage after that what our next steps are.”

Next steps? All very interesting.

Robinson has spent a lot of time in recent weeks, first in the UK where he attended the Commonwealth Games, and met with SANZAAR, Six Nations and World Rugby colleagues, and now in South Africa, for both Tests against the Springboks, discussing next steps.

Rieko Ioane of the All Blacks on the run. (Getty)

The relationship with South Africa, of course, is a delicate one.

Spurned by Super Rugby, with the decided (and probably mistaken) impression that New Zealand were behind that ousting, they are knocking loudly at the door of the Six Nations.

Already they have aligned their professional franchises with the north (in the United Rugby Championship) and a similar move at Test level is a logical step.

New Zealand’s David Havili scores a try. (AP)

The only problem is they do not possess the secret codes for a seat at the table of one of the great closed shops in sport, and a revolutionary Six Nations shakeup is considered about as likely as Ian Foster taking the Kiwi media to dinner.

Robinson, for his part, is desperate to keep the core Rugby Championship intact beyond the current agreement which ends in 2025.

“We’d love to keep them, and we’ve been consistent all the way through on that,” the Kiwi rugby chief tells Stuff over a coffee.

New Zealand’s Sam Whitelock wins the ball against South Africa’s Eben Etzebeth. (AP)

“A lot of the dialogue going on at the moment is around what the competition format might be, where in the calendar it sits, how we drive more commercial value and player welfare aspects. We just need to take time to understand what their and Argentina’s challenges are.”

That dialogue will continue in early September when SANZAAR reconvenes around the World Cup sevens, but the roaring success of the two Tests against the All Blacks are understood to have swayed the South Africans.

Their problem is the logistical calendar nightmare of having a foot in both hemispheres.

South Africa’s Lukhanyo Am scores a try at Ellis Park. (AP)

Undoubtedly there has been a high performance cost to jettisoning South Africa from Super Rugby – necessitated by COVID, with an assist from a reluctant Australia who may have had no broadcast deal with the Saffas on board – and the NZR boss says a big part of current talks with SARU centre on “how we still have a strong connection with South African teams in the future.”

“We know there’s a value in being associated with South African rugby… there is no other connection and rivalry like it in world rugby,” he adds.

Then there are the Aussies, and their provocative chairman Hamish McLennan who likes to fire broadsides in the media.

Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan. (Getty)

He has already threatened to dissolve the Super Rugby Pacific partnership and declared NZ Rugby were “not good partners” in a calculated move to drive more revenue out of broadcasting deals that heavily favour New Zealand.

A purported car ride in England with Rugby Australia chief Andy Marinos, of course, never happened, but Robinson, who much prefers closed door diplomacy to mud slinging in the media, declares dialogue has been positive and “we don’t believe it’s a relationship on the rocks.”

“There have been some comments publicly which we were surprised by, and certainly aren’t aligned with… they were a flashpoint in a moment of time probably designed for an outcome we’re not sure about. We think there is a foundation of a really positive Super Rugby competition… but we just need some time to bed it in.”

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Robinson believes the competition is built to last and says further moves, such as expansion, must wait until a stronger base is built.

“Australia have their challenges and we need to work with them,” he adds.

In the meantime there is “low hanging fruit” that can be plucked around the look, feel and marketing of the competition, as well as mechanisms such as player movement and salary caps.

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As for the notion the Aussies (with a nearly $60m annual imbalance in broadcasting revenue) could go it alone, Robinson will only say: “Anyone with a fair degree of insight into the way sports, markets and commercial models work could draw their own conclusion pretty quickly. We think a Pacific-wide competition is in the best interests of the game.”

On the bigger picture stuff, dialogue remains ongoing around the global calendar and fitting both world Test championships and an inter-hemisphere club playoff into the schedule.

Robinson has seen movement, but concedes more is required, with talks to restart in September.

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“We have to think really carefully around the future calendar and competitions structure,” he says.

“There’s also growing acknowledgement we need to talk about the shape of the game, and where the product is heading on field. We need to line up whether there’s a material change before the World Cup, or it waits another cycle.

“Balancing player welfare with the fan experience is so critical. There is a sense that maybe we haven’t got that right, and maybe we need to revisit things to see if we can get aligned on a different approach.

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Robinson noted the success of July’s inter-hemisphere tours, but is adamant a structured global Test championship in two of the three years between World Cups is the way forward.

Working out ramifications, commercial and otherwise, around a fourth (finals) weekend in November is the key piece of detail still being hammered out.

“There is a sense that creating a greater degree of meaning across an entire calendar year, culminating in a finals weekend is something fans would find quite interesting as well,” he adds.

New Zealand celebrate the victory. (Getty)

He’s asked about the big issues facing NZ Rugby right now.

Silver Lake is over the line, money is in the coffers, but challenges remain beyond the All Blacks – for which he’s copped his fair share of criticism, even from the reporter he’s currently sipping coffee with.

In no particular order the boss lists players safety, especially around concussion; teenage participation and general engagement around the game; establishing a financial framework for a sustainable future; re-engaging with the public out of COVID; and addressing the pandemic’s deep impact on community rugby.

Steve Hansen during an All Blacks media session in London. (Getty)

He noted the biting criticism of former All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, but isn’t sure those came with “full insight.”

Robinson believes the relationship with the players is on the way up after the Silver Lake impasse and is confident the high performance programme will get back on track after three years ravaged by COVID.

There is also a women’s World Cup on Kiwi soil looming.

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“It’s a massive opportunity and huge launching pad to drive a lot of interest and activity,” he says, not just for the revamped Black Ferns, but the female game in general.

“We want to grow Super Rugby Aupiki. We think there are strong opportunities around a trans-Tasman competition and potentially something that loops in Japan and maybe the US. We’re excited about what the future of the women’s professional game can look like.”

There will always be challenges, and right now fixing the All Blacks is right up there, but Robinson is also full of optimism that as the world emerges from the pandemic, so too can New Zealand rugby find a positive way forward.

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