The seismic super shift

The Chiefs celebrate their Super Rugby Championship win
The Chiefs celebrate their Super Rugby Championship win

The Chiefs' charm offensive will start next month.

That's when back-to-back Super Rugby champion coach Dave Rennie will bring his squad south to spend several days pre-season training in Taranaki.

Although details are still to be firmed up, there's bound to be public events where the interaction will be a key tool in helping to attract new supporters.

Taranaki and the Chiefs might appear to be strange bedfellows, especially to those diehard Hurricanes fans, but the new partnership was not about driving a wedge between those who want to remain loyal to the Wellington-based franchise.

Taranaki Rugby Football Union chairman Lindsay Thomson would be banking a tidy wee sum if he had a dollar for every time he has conveyed the message that it is still OK to support whichever team fans want to.

Heck, even in the heart of Chiefs country, at their Ruakura base in Hamilton, he was still affirming his support for Mark Hammett's men. On the playing field, at least.

Although Hurricanes chief executive James Te Puni put a good spin on it this week, the simple fact was the offer his organisation put to Taranaki was simply not appealing.

"It was really disappointing at the time because we didn't have any other options," Thomson said. "From my perspective, and I don't want to be negative towards the Hurricanes, but neither Hawke's Bay nor Manawatu decided to ultimately invest in them."

With their relationships frosty between the two former franchise partners, the Taranaki board welcomed the interest shown by the Chiefs.

"They invited us to come and have a chat and that's where it started," Thomson said.

Nine months on and at a table at the front of the players' meeting room at Ruakura sat New Zealand Rugby Union boss Steve Tew, Chiefs chief executive Andrew Flexman, chairman Dallas Fisher and Thomson.

One by one they spoke about the new seven-year licence deal, which in short has seen the formation of the Chiefs Rugby Club. It comprises 50 per cent provincial rugby unions, including Taranaki, and 50 per cent private investors, bringing an extra $3.3 million capital investment with them.

Most of Taranaki's investment, believed to be in the vicinity of $300,000, came from former Fonterra boss Craig Norgate and Tenderlink founder Philip Brown, with smaller contributions from the TRFU and two unnamed investors.

The deal, largely brokered by former TRFU chief executive Neil Pennington, gives Taranaki a guaranteed two home games for the next two years and more than likely beyond when a new Sanzar broadcasting deal is signed.

The Blues and Waratahs will head to Yarrow Stadium to face the Chiefs in May, with Thomson optimistic about attracting healthy crowds.

"Rugby supporters throughout the province generally sit down on a Friday and Saturday night if a game is on and watch Super Rugby. We are giving them the opportunity to get off the couch and come and watch the game live, bring their kids and see their heroes running around Yarrow Stadium.

"Sure, they could have done that in the past with the Hurricanes, but it wasn't regular enough for us."

However, it's more than just the games heading south, as Thomson points out, with both sides keen to establish a strong working relationship on all levels.

It's a sentiment shared by Flexman and Fisher, who enthusiastically showed off the developments around the Ruakura training base this week.

The new gym is part one of the ambitious plan, which will eat up a reasonable portion of the investment. A covered training field is next on the agenda, along with a new hypoxic or altitude training apparatus to condition players better for South African conditions and assist recovery from injury.

"The investment of $3.3 million will be used to drive the [Chiefs] club forward," Fisher insisted.

"There will also be major investment in new technology around injury management and rehab. We also want to invest in the commercial brand and try and grow the business."

A showdown between the Chiefs and European champions Toulon in February hasn't eventuated to help with global brand growth so the Chiefs board will be all the more desperate to get Sonny Bill Williams back in the fold in 2015.

Waikato business giant The Gallagher Group was really keen to get on board as the Chiefs enter a new phase. Although it's two years away, the company has already signed on to become principal partner and naming rights sponsor from 2016.

Group chief executive and chairman Sir William Gallagher was gushing in his praise for the direction the Chiefs were heading.

"We're [Gallagher] very big in Ireland and South Africa, and even in Kenya we had people there who thought we were a small Kenyan company until they saw our name around one of the Chiefs games.

"So there certainly are benefits in being involved and apart from that, it's a good cause anyway."

Fisher said Gallagher's involvement "totally reinforces the confidence of the club and the organisation".

Flexman, fresh in the job after being the Tasman Rugby boss, acknowledged there was still quite a bit of detail to be worked through in regards to marketing the Chiefs in Taranaki.

"We will be in Taranaki in January and that will be a bit of a charm offensive, if you like," he said. "Although it is also still being planned, we are likely to have a good presence in terms of the team around the matches we will be playing in New Plymouth."

That's already a shift in thinking from the Hurricanes, who would breeze into town a day before a match and leave as rapidly as they arrived.

As for the reaction he had received from Rennie and his assistants Wayne Smith, Tom Coventry and Andrew Strawbridge about the Chiefs' expansion south?

"This is what astounds me and impresses me about this coaching group. Yes, they are rugby coaches and very, very good at what they do, but they are also the sort of blokes who have the ability to put a commercial hat on from time to time.

"Very much their opinion is if it's good for the Chiefs' brand, and we think it is, they are comfortable with it. They understand the wider commercial opportunities that this association with Taranaki presents moving forward."

The timeframe it took to get the deal over the line had been lengthy but Flexman said it was complex, especially dealing with the legal documentation associated with such a large consortium of investors.

"We had to raise a fairly significant amount of capital, which takes time. In an ideal world, we might have got this across the line a couple of months ago, but it is what it is."

Flexman insisted he had yet to encounter any negativity from provincial unions within the previous Chiefs boundaries toward Taranaki's inclusion.

"Let's be honest, there are going to be some challenges around it, with Taranaki getting two games guaranteed for the next two years."

Tew was also acutely aware of some potential ill-feeling in Taranaki about the decision to switch allegiance to the Chiefs. An NZRU commissioned Colmar Brunton poll showed about 30 per cent of respondents were against it.

But the fact there was equal support for the move, and 40 per cent were happy either way, showed it was not going to cause widespread contempt.

"In the end there was a small group who have strong, historical links to the Hurricanes, but the vast majority had an open mind," he said. "Our view is if we drew the boundaries from scratch now, then Taranaki would probably be in the Chiefs anyway."

But we wanted to be careful and not fly in the face of any strong fan reaction.

"It was encouraging, that's the word I would use, and in the end it will come down to putting the games on and the team delivering."

Tew also thought it was important for critics to remember there had been previous boundary changes since Super Rugby started in 1996.

"In the end the Taranaki boys feel they have a stronger provincial rural association, it's closer to Hamilton than it is to Wellington and they have a brighter future here. We just listened to that."

Taranaki Daily News