NZRU boss Brent Impey keeps low profile

Last updated 05:00 13/07/2014
TAKING THINGS ON BOARD: Brent Impey chats with All Blacks captain Richie McCaw after the second test against England in Dunedin.
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TAKING THINGS ON BOARD: Brent Impey chats with All Blacks captain Richie McCaw after the second test against England in Dunedin.

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LIAM NAPIER talks to New Zealand rugby's new chairman.

Brent Impey hopes this will be his last interview.

In his latest high-powered role as New Zealand Rugby Union chairman, he is not pursuing a strong public presence.

His time taking the hits and sharing the media limelight is, for now at least, behind him.

After leading Media Works - New Zealand's largest independent broadcaster - for nine years, Impey is content to offer his extensive expertise without fanfare.

Such a brief represents a change of pace for someone once rated New Zealand's 10th most powerful man but the former Auckland lawyer holds firm views about the clear distinction between governance and management.

His self-defined duty is to form a close, honest and direct relationship with chief executive Steve Tew, one with no surprises.

"I've worked with some brilliant chairs and some shocking ones. I know the difference. No, I don't see myself getting my hands dirty," he says.

"I see it as guiding the organisation and showing appropriate leadership when it's required.

"It's not about leaving it to others. The face of the organisation should be the chief executive. It's not about me; it's about what's best for the organisation. I'm actually hoping this is my last interview."

There are, however, areas Impey will be influential - not that he will admit it here.

The area where his background is most valuable is obviously in imminent broadcast negotiations.

Broadcast currently contributes 40% of NZRU revenue - around $47 million annually. The governing body has targeted a significant increase in the next deal, due to commence from 2016.

Impey was the driving force behind TV3 securing the 2007 Rugby World Cup rights and assisted with the complex arrangement for the 2011 equivalent.

That experience gives him confidence he can contribute to gaining the desired lift in investment from bidders.

"Yes, I think so. I've got a reasonable appreciation of the value," he says.

"My role is to support the management in negotiations, whether they be directly with Sky or via Sanzar with the three major countries.

"With things such as Super Rugby rights, free-to-air (TV) couldn't compete with the subscription model. There was no way you could get advertising to cover rights and production costs."

Rugby remains the premium content in New Zealand sporting society.

With broadband being slowly rolled out across the country and growth in the digital sphere of online providers such as Coliseum Sports Media and Telecom, the NZRU feels it holds a strong bargaining position.

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"Sky has been a great partner over 20 years and there is now some competition in the market place that hasn't previously existed," Impey says.

The chairman role requires around 90 to 100 days per-year. Fortunately, Impey's other professional director and consultancy positions allow him to be flexible.

The 62-year-old has already met the Crusaders board and plans to catch up with the other four Kiwi Super Rugby franchises, as well as the 14 provincial unions, to offer direction.

This year he will also travel with the All Blacks to Johannesburg, Chicago and Sydney to discuss commercial matters with the respective countries.

Clearly, there's much more to the NZRU than 15 blokes in black jerseys chasing a leather ball. In the professional era, the organisation has attracted global sponsors who require constant engagement.

Those deals, coupled with broadcast agreements, fund the foundations of the New Zealand game.

From a governance perspective, predecessor Mike Eagle will be replaced on the International Rugby Board's executive committee within the next year but Impey is not likely to fill that void.

"I don't think it needs to be the chairman," he said of the IRB role.

"It could be one of the other board members who can add value."

Outside of national matters, his focus will be largely a hands-on boardroom role with Super Rugby's governing body, Sanzar.

Expansion from 15 to 18 teams will be signed off in the next three months - with the Singapore-based Asia Pacific Dragons the favoured final inclusion, alongside a sixth South African and Argentinean side.

Impey will attend the next Sanzar meeting, coincidentally held in Singapore, where further details are expected to be finalised.

Concussion, the push for a global season and match fixing are just some of the major issues facing rugby.

Impey acknowledges these but, as a member of Auckland's University club, he believes dwindling participation is the most pressing concern from a local standpoint.

He hopes the growth of the women's game through sevens can attract more players; wants clubs to be aligned closer with schools and for them to harness a greater appreciation for people's contrasting motivations, both socially and competitively.

"Numbers are good up until secondary school levels but the area from 16 to 20 is a major challenge for us," he says.

"We've got to try whatever we can and apply some serious resource, to address the issue. Rugby league in Sydney is having the same issues."

BRENT IMPEY ON....

CONCUSSION: "We are still learning. If you go back a few years the issue was around neck injuries. That's largely been addressed. We're trying to get to best practice on concussion. We want young people playing the game and if there's any suggestion we're not on top of it that affects parents allowing their kids to play."

GLOBAL SEASON: "One of the issues is the power of the French clubs. Rugby is an international game so the global season is essential. Over a period of time, I think this will be resolved. There is a positive attitude from the southern hemisphere unions, England and the players who will buy into it."

SELECTING ALL BLACKS FROM AUSTRALIA OR SANZAR COUNTRIES: "I remain staunch on that issue. Our duty is to advance the game for New Zealand. As soon as we show flexibility in that area I think it will be a backward step. There would have to be a compelling case before I'd change my view on that."

MATCH FIXING: "We'd be stupid not to be alert to it now. As the money pours into the game, as we've seen with other sports, we've got to be on to it. We can't rely on tradition and honesty. Also New Zealanders tend to be a bit more trusting in this area than others. We've got the policies in place. As far as I'm aware we haven't had an incident but it's only a matter of time."

- Sunday Star Times

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