New Zealand Rugby steps in to take large stake in the basement Blues
New Zealand Rugby has retaken the reins of the Blues in a bid to avert what they saw as a looming crisis, and are vowing to get the right people round the board table to fix the ailing franchise. It's understood former All Blacks coach John Hart is at the top of that list
New Zealand Rugby announced on Friday they had come to an agreement with the Blues' private equity investor, Bolton Equities Limited (BEL), to acquire back its 40 percent interest in the the franchise. The game's governing body will take over, on an interim basis, that stake in the Auckland-based Super Rugby club following an independent review of its governance structure.
The review concluded that the existing shareholding mix was unsustainable, and recommended that BEL sell its shares to NZR. New Zealand Rugby will now work with the provincial union shareholders to find a new group of investors.
New Zealand Rugby chief strategy and operations officer NIgel Cass told Stuff that the ailing franchise had reached a point where change had become a necessity. The review, headed by former cricket high-flyer Alan Isaac, confirmed that a fundamental governance remake was the only possible starting point.
"For a Super Rugby club to succeed pretty well everything they do has to be exceptional. You can make the case that the Blues' governance was fairly average and that's just not going to cut it," said Cass. "You're not going to win if that's the case. Alan Isaac's review basically found the relationships around that board table weren't functioning at a level we needed them to work.
"Since we've had that review we've been talking to [BEL chief] Murray Bolton about acquiring his stake. Ultimately Murray wants the Blues to succeed. He is disappointed he won't be as involved as he has been but he agrees that things have to change so in that sense is comfortable that we're acquiring his stake."
Exacerbating the situation is that New Zealand Rugby some years back identified the greater Auckland region, with its bulging population, as a key strategic focus. Having a continuing under-performing Super Rugby side has not helped that cause at a time when playing numbers, both nationally and in the region, are less than buoyant.
Asked if New Zealand Rugby had been called in to retake control of the Blues as a result of the review, or if the review had been the first step in a deliberate process, Cass admitted it was "a bit of both".
"We clearly have not been happy with how the Blues have been going, and in that sense we initiated the review to provide some answers. And the review is very clear that the shareholding and governance structure, in terms of people who sit round the board table, had to change."
In terms of the people that will sit round the board table now, Cass confirmed three New Zealand Rugby appointees would be the next step to join the three provincial union directors (Kate Daly, Brian Wilsher and Shaun Nixon) and outgoing chair Tony Carter who has agreed to oversee the transition.
"We will be making announcements about those shortly, then we need to really make sure we've got the right people round that table to make the decisions this team needs to be able to win."
Stuff understands the respected Hart will be one of those NZR-appointed directors, and could even take the reins of the new board. The other names that have cropped up are Auckland-based NZR board member Richard Dellabarca and former MP and cabinet minister Sam Lotu-liga.
The recent appointments of Leon MacDonald and Tom Coventry to join Tana Umaga's coaching group have been widely considered positive steps for the franchise, but other issues remain, including the thorny one of retention and development of talent in the region.
Cass said the governance change was definitely a "good thing" for the under-performing franchise which is a perennial Kiwi conference wooden-spooner and has made the playoffs just once in the last decade.
"If you look at the Blues' off-field performance, they've done some good things. Look at where they're based [in a new facility in Epsom], and the suite of sponsors they have and a range of things in terms of how the business works. But ultimately their success will be judged by how well that team does in Super Rugby, and they haven't achieved what they need to.
"From New Zealand Rugby's perspective you could argue we've got four teams going pretty well and we should be happy with that. But we're not. We need five teams going well. The Blues are critically important because they sit in the heart of our largest city. It's just not option for us to sit and wait for a crisis."
Bolton said whilst "we have been required to sell our shares, we will continue to be a strong advocate and supporter for the Blues".