Wednesday, December 5, 2007

NZRU: two fantastic choices

Note: this is my column for NZ Rugby Monthly. Because of publishing deadlines, this was written five days before Graham Henry and his coaching panel finally decide to reapply for their jobs. So despite the deadline reality, I’m going to have to risk writing about what might become a non-issue if the incumbents decide not to stay - and if so, Robbie Deans is the standout candidate. He has made a commitment to run, his record is impeccable, he’s been there before and he’s head and shoulders above any other competitor. Warren Gatland and dark horse John Kirwan are building experience overseas and will come back into the running post 2011.

The downside of the coaching decision to New Zealand rugby is absolutely nil. We either continue with what I consider to be the best-in-world rugby coaching panel today (particularly now that Jake and Eddie have left the Springboks) or we go with a zero risk option in Robbie Deans.

A decade ago, I was on the Board of the New Zealand Rugby Union, and in 1998 there was a rebellion at board level about John Hart’s performances that season. There was strong movement on the Board to ditch Hart and convince Deans to take the reign with 12 months to go before the 1999 World Cup. It went down to the wire to a single vote and the Board was split with the majority keeping Hart in place. The passion and vitriol generated during this episode was staggering to watch. It became very personal and I can see the same thing happening if the incumbents choose to stand. In my experience, nobody sits on the fence on this kind of issue. Everybody on the Board will have very, very strong points of view, and it will make for a gladiator-like spectacle; unfortunately, taking place behind closed doors and not at the coliseum.

There has been a lot of criticism in the press about the NZRU going to a review. To me, this is naïve and unfounded. Rugby is a business as well as a sport. NZRU has an obligation to all stakeholders, including players, coaches, sponsors and partners, to deliver the best All Black team possible and deliver a team that can win every game. This is vital to the development of every aspect of rugby in New Zealand, and nothing is more vital in that mix than the coaching.

NZRU are doing what every strong business board would do. They are taking time to consider all the facts, all the evidence, and to study the cases of top contenders to see who is best equipped to move us forward. They will judge which of the contenders' approached is most likely to deliver success on and off the field for the All Blacks, and thus generate a strong trickle down effect for the rest of the game. I am sure they will go into the process open-minded and hoping that one contender will blow them out of the water with a plan they can believe in.

Critical to Saatchi & Saatchi are three things in business: responsibility, recognition and joy. The current All Blacks coaching team took responsibility, they stood up and were given plenty of recognition, and they delivered great joy to us until that fateful day in Wales. We should not forget that 42 out of 48 test matches were won, the Lions were annihilated, that brilliant grand slam in the UK, the Bledisdoe Cup has been retained for the last four years and the Tri-Nations victories in ’05, ’06 and ’07. Nor should we forget the players they discovered, the initiatives they took and the brilliant rugby they played so often.

The trick now is to see whether they have learned from the disaster in Cardiff, and whether they have a new plan in place which will deliver a similar kind of win record and put us in place for victory in 2011. It will be particularly interesting to see how they plan to deal with the breakup of their team through age and the exodus into Europe. Robbie Deans will stand on his Crusaders record, his time with the All Blacks with John Mitchell (which was much more successful than people recognize) and his go-forward plans.

At Saatchi we believe, “fail fast, learn fast and fix fast”. We failed in Cardiff. Have the current panel learned? Are they ready to fix the issues immediately? In the past, England and Ireland have gone down the road of accumulated experience being crucial and England saw success when Woodward turned one campaign’s failure into success in 2003. Ireland’s decision on Eddie O’Sullivan has yet to be proven.

I really hope Graham and his panel signal their intent to stand as this gives the NZRU two fantastic choices. It also demonstrates to the public that the current trio value the job and the experience, and are willing to fight for what they believe in. Full credit to Robbie Deans for turning down motor-mouth across the ditch.

The USA Eagles are also on the hunt for a new coach. Our own Peter Thorburn did a fantastic job for us, guided initially by Alan Solomons and then by Nigel Melville, lifting the USA to four of their best ever Rugby World Cup performances. We have delayed our closing date for applications as we watch the NZ scenario unfold (funny that), but we’ll be appointing a top class, proven leader before the end of the year. We’ve had a lot of interest from the highest profile coaches who feel that the chance to bring USA Rugby into the top tier of nations is real and a once in a lifetime opportunity. They like our governance structure, our clean reporting lines, our speed and the raw talent of our athletes. Living in Boulder, Colorado doesn’t hurt either.