Ex chairman Mike Eagle leaves the NZRU nest

Last updated 05:00 19/07/2014
HAPPY TIMES: All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, left, and NZRU chairman Mike Eagle celebrate in the dressing room following the win over Ireland in Dublin last year.
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HAPPY TIMES: All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, left, and NZRU chairman Mike Eagle celebrate in the dressing room following the win over Ireland in Dublin last year.

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Former New Zealand Rugby Union chairman Mike Eagle reflects with RICHARD KNOWLER on his 12-year spell at rugby's top table.

Mike Eagle never saw the expressions on the All Blacks' players faces when referee Craig Joubert called time on the 2011 World Cup final.

Ex-New Zealand Rugby Union chairman Eagle, who recently retired after being in the position since 2010, was standing in the Eden Park tunnel alongside Prime Minister John Key as the All Blacks scrapped for survival during the final frantic minutes in their 8-7 win over France.

Had it been up to the man himself he would have remained bowed over in his Eden Park seat but because dignitaries were required to prepare for the trophy presentation he was given his marching orders with eight minutes remaining.

"It took us four minutes to get down in the lift and he [Key] said 'what do you think?'," Eagle, a Christchurch electrical company co-owner, recollected.

"I said if we hear a huge cheer we are all right. If it's a muffled one I don't think we are at all."

Eagle had played, and watched, enough games to identify when a team was hanging on by their fingernails and he could see the French were only a turnover and a line break from pushing the All Blacks off the cliff edge.

As they continued to wait Eagle and Key made small talk to relieve their anxiety and when the latter admitted his heart was racing, the NZRU chairman told him it was with good reason.

"He said 'it's beating, almost coming out'," Eagle says.

"I said you are not the only one - if they score here we are gone. We won't come back from this."

Later, as they shared the dias during the presentations, the crowd cheered when Key's name was announced.

Such was their state of euphoria those fans would probably have clapped if told a swarm of wasps had descended upon the ground but Eagle reckoned from that moment on Key's government was guaranteed another term in office.

"You just won the election," Eagle stated.

"I think there was a reasonable chance National would have lost the election because it's the swing of the people, isn't it? Everyone would have been depressed and no-one would have voted."

Eagle's decision to step down as the NZRU chairman at the recent annual meeting means Brent Impey has taken over as the head of the board but the Cantabrian is still on the International Rugby Board's executive committee.

After being elected for the first time as the board's southern representative in 2002, he became the chairman following Jock Hobbs' retirement because of ill health in 2010.

Eagle has never been afraid to speak his mind but following his elevation to the top post he said he would take more care when delivering messages to those around him.

When the doors were closed, however, it would have been entertaining - depending on which side of the conversation you were on - to watch him debate points.

A passionate rugby man who played as a lock for Albion and Canterbury B, he isn't the retiring type.

He was actively involved in Christchurch lobbying for the new AMI Stadium at Addington after Lancaster Park was damaged in the 2011 earthquakes.

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Eagle had no truck with the IRB's decision to take the World Cup games away from Christchurch, stating it wasn't feasible for the city to stage any games.

"Someone said it was like the rest of the country was having a party and we weren't invited but circumstances dictated that we were never going to get there."

In 2011 the Crusaders were forced to travel out of Christchurch for all their games and Canterbury played at Rugby Park; Eagle was determined to make sure that didn't happen again.

He tried to arrange a meeting with then-Mayor Bob Parker but when he struggled to get an audience he put pen to paper.

"In the letter I said one of the fabrics of Canterbury society is their sport, particularly rugby. The people for this town are crying out for some entertainment and, if you want that, the best way is to get a ground where the Crusaders and Canterbury can play at, where people can watch.

"Because if you don't we stand a chance of losing the Crusaders out of the town and we stand a chance of losing people to rugby."

Parker proved receptive to the idea of a new stadium. Government minister Gerry Brownlee got things going and the NZRU offered their support by guaranteeing three tests in the city.

The $35 million stadium, which was funded by the Government, was built in 100 days.

"That was unbelievable, really. It's been well supported but I don't think it's the answer. I know there are people in this town that say you have got a stadium and you don't need another but I don't agree with that."

Prolonged debate about proposals for a new stadium irritates Eagle.

Seeing Christchurch miss out on the World Cup was tough.

Now he's resigned to the fact the city won't host a test when the British and Irish Lions tour in 2017 because the existing stadium at Addington, which has an existing capacity of 17,300 but can be increased to around 21,000, is likely to be deemed too small.

It will not be feasible for the NZRU to play a test at such a small ground - especially with the Lions demanding a hefty fee for touring here.

"Financially we are just going to have to be realistic and once again the Canterbury rugby fraternity are going to have to travel to watch the Lions and that is hugely disappointing to be missing one of the biggest rugby tours here in the next 10 to 20 years."

He hears all the criticisms about the NZRU losing touch with the grassroots sector of the game but when he gets serious and starts pointing out why they are doing some things his detractors usually retreat into their shells.

Anyone stating professionalism has ruined rugby and things were better in the amateur days risks getting a rocket.

"I have gone past even listening to that now. People who live in that [mindset] really should get out of the game because there is no future in that. We don't look back; we look forward."

Adding insurance giant AIG to the front of the All Blacks jersey was inevitable and Eagle has no regrets.

Traditionalists roared with indignation at the sight of another sponsor being added to the black jersey - adidas already have their logo on the right breast - but he says the NZRU had to be pragmatic.

Getting permission from adidas was crucial, and once the apparel company agreed that they needed to get another global sponsor the NZRU consulted current and former internationals. Eagle says they favoured the concept.

"We always understood we are under financial pressure and the more we can release that pressure in years ahead, then everything would fall into place much easier.

"The balance is that if we don't get the finance we don't keep the best players. Do we want to see them playing here or watch them on the television playing somewhere else?

"We certainly don't match what they get paid over there but we have to make these guys comfortable so that they want to play in New Zealand. Richie McCaw and Dan Carter are two examples of guys who could have made megabucks overseas."

The NZRU board had to show some backbone in 2009 when the management's number crunchers pulled out the spreadsheets and stated it was time to reduce the number of teams in the National Provincial Championship.

Eagle, who then operated under former chairman Hobbs, didn't want a bar of that.

Neither, he says, did the other board members. Well, he admits, maybe the independents thought the concept made sense - but only because they were only looking at the figures.

He has no regrets, either. Abandoning provinces like Tasman and Southland would have been a disaster.

"They had all the financial details and all the data to say we should be going down to 12. But the board had a really robust debate about that and it came down to a rugby decision.

"Did we want to lose rugby completely in those two provinces that we took the teams out? It was the right decision."

EAGLE ON RUGBY

1. WHY OVERSEAS-BASED PLAYERS SHOULDN'T PLAY FOR THE ALL BLACKS

"The day we pick players from overseas, the whole rugby competition in New Zealand is gone. People will be going over to second and third division clubs in England and France and getting more money than they are getting here. So why would they play here if there is still a chance of playing for the All Blacks by going overseas?"

2. REMIND US WHAT THE ROLE OF THE NZRU BOARD IS

"I think some people don't understand the difference between governance and management. The NZRU board is a governance organisation. It shouldn't get involved in management things. They should set the strategy, get things in place and tell [chief executive] Steve Tew to get on with it.

"Steve's KPIs are matched around that strategy and the principles that are set up every year. He has goals to get to and those goals are monitored by the board. And that's how he get paid his bonus system. It's all about the bonus system. At the end of the day if they [the NZRU staff] don't meet expectation it is Steve that suffers because his percentages don't come up."

3. DO BOARD MEETINGS GET HEATED?

"Very much so. New Zealand Rugby is a business and the board has to be like a commercial board to a certain degree."

4. CAN NZ HOST ANOTHER WORLD CUP?

"Yes. Rugby is an icon here. I think the IRB understand, too - well, I hope they understand - they have to take the World Cup to new places but every second cycle go back to one of your base rugby places. The fear of New Zealand not being able to run it is dispelled.

"Yes the financial return for the IRB was never going to be as much as France or the United Kingdom but as a product and a tournament it is great."

5. WOULD ROBBIE DEANS BE WELCOMED BACK TO COACH IN NZ?

"Yes, of course. Robbie's a great coach; he has proven that. I know I was intricately involved in the decision to retain the coaches that were there [after the 2007 World Cup] but I was a firm believer that if you want to beat the incumbent you have to be a lot better - not just as good.

"Robbie came into that meeting, really, not as prepared as he normally is. He's usually right on the button. He was told to bring in details of who his assistants were going to be.

"Well, you know, there's two assistants he put up and neither of them had any international experience and he hadn't been in contact with them. You put that up against a proven team of guys who lost a game for all sorts of reasons.

"We thought against what Robbie was offering, we would give them another shot.

"We talked to senior players as well and I had long discussions with some of them about 'what would you do?' Some of those senior players had been coached by Robbie as well and they were saying 'yep, he is a good coach but the other guys are as well'."

6. ARGENTINA. WHY DO THE NZRU CARE?

"They just need an opportunity to play regular international games and now they need an opportunity to create a [Super Rugby] franchise team in their country. Yes it means a hell of a lot more travel for us, and player welfare is an issue, but we have gone too far to just cut them off.''

- The Press

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