Your Quarterly E-Zine
Edition 11 • December 2019

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Steve Tew

This month, Steve Tew steps away from his role as New Zealand Rugby’s chief executive, a position he was appointed to in 2007. Prior to that, Steve ran the Canterbury Rugby Union and the Crusaders Super Rugby franchise. After a highly successful 25-year career in rugby administration, Steve shares his views on his achievements, the challenges Rugby Union faces in the coming years, and offers a few hints about what’s next for him.

Since becoming CEO of New Zealand Rugby in 2007, what are the principal changes you’ve seen in terms of the rugby landscape, both domestically and internationally?

What an enormous question to start with! If we think about the game, I’d split it into the professional game and community game. In the professional game, we have seen the stakes rise considerably. The investment, particularly in France, the UK and Japan, has changed the landscape for our player market beyond anything we would have predicted when the game turned professional. 

The competition, as we saw at this last Rugby World Cup, has also increased considerably, with all the international teams at the top level well-coached, heavily resourced, and highly technically capable around analysis. On top of this, our players have ultimately gotten bigger, faster and stronger.

As for the community game in New Zealand, we have held our own reasonably well against the tide of a new generation who have a multitude of options for their time. They’re also an impatient generation, so they like everything to be an instant gratification. We’ve seen the baby boomers go through our cohort and that has changed the way people connect to their community. They also bring a very different set of beliefs and values around community connection.

There are still plenty of good things that work well in the community. I like to cite the Crusaders example in how they kept the Canterbury region together particularly after the earthquake in February 2011, and they played an entire season of Investec Super Rugby away from home with all the pressures that that puts on their families, while the city was still recovering and dealing with aftershocks. I saw the way rugby was able to help the community on the West Coast deal with the loss of life at the Pike River Mine, and I’ve just read about a young girl called Lily who has some significant vision and motor neuron deficiencies and she’s using rugby as a way to express herself and grow up as ‘normal’ as she can. 

The one area that we still have an enormous opportunity for further growth in, is the women’s game. Our own numbers have held steady with increases year on year for the past five years as more teenage girls and women take up the sport; this has been a big part of the stabilisation of our player base. We know there are opportunities, but they will require more investment, investment requires more cash, and we either have to stop doing some things or generate more income, and at the moment we’re starting to see the commercial opportunities open up. The Rugby World Cup 2021 here in New Zealand will give us a real opportunity in New Zealand and Oceania to grow the women’s game and I’m looking forward to seeing how that unfolds.

Looking ahead, what are the main challenges for Rugby Union in New Zealand over the next decade?

The investment I alluded to earlier from France and the UK, that’s created pressure on countries like New Zealand and South Africa and Australia to retain their talent and keep it available for the national teams. It’s also made life difficult for Pacific countries, but on the other side of the coin it’s given those athletes an opportunity to earn a considerable income.

We’ve seen the global calendar become very full and World Rugby have had a number of attempts at arranging a schedule that makes more sense, particularly the way the season flows for our teams and players. While we’ve made some progress by moving the June window to July so that Investec Super Rugby can continue to run straight through uninterrupted, we haven’t aligned the north and south calendars as well as we would have liked, and that remains a work in progress.

There’s lots of good stuff happening at the community level, but there’s no doubt clubs are under pressure. We face declining populations in rural areas (the change of land use has been a big part of that), and the increasing size of Auckland and the changing ethnic mix of that city is going to challenge all of us to be relevant.

After 12 years at the helm of New Zealand Rugby, what would you consider to be your signature achievements?

I think the most important thing for any Chief Executive is that you leave the organisation in good shape and I would like to think that we are in a good position here. We have great people and I always reference that as the most important part of anyone’s time in any organisation. Have you identified, nurtured, grown and supported good people, and I think that’s been the case. I always come back to the phrase ‘he tangata, he tangata he tangata’ – it is the people, the people, the people. 

There have been a lot of highlights so it’s hard to pinpoint just a few. But, definitely high up there is winning the 2005 bid to host the 2011 Rugby World Cup, and then delivering a tournament, the size of which we’d never held in New Zealand before. It was a hugely successful event: it was on budget, showcased New Zealand, and I was delighted to see New Zealanders really embracing the tournament. It was fantastic! Winning it polished the jewel nicely. 

It was a privilege to be on stage when we won the Princess of Asturias and Laureus Awards, two prestigious international awards, and we shared the stage with Nobel Peace Prize winners. That wasn’t just about the All Blacks being a winning team, it was about the way the All Blacks bring different ethnicities together, how they have conducted themselves over a long history and the winning record was part of it.

David Rogers / Getty Images Sport via Getty Images

Winning in 2011 and 2015 with the All Blacks was important, as was winning multiple times with the Black Ferns, and I never thought I would see two Sevens teams win two Rugby World Cups once, let alone twice, and I’ve been privileged enough to see that in my time. 

The major off-field achievement for us was confronting a difficult issue in 2016 which had manifested in a series of off-field incidents involving our players and this was painting a bad picture for rugby. We took a brave step and had the courage to commission an independent inquiry, and we populated that group with some hard-thinking people and people neutral from rugby.

Pleasingly they came back and said that rugby does a lot of good – but they identified that there were some societal issues that rugby could help with, such as youth suicide, mental health, giving our young men and women better tools to deal with the temptations of alcohol, drugs, and gambling, and to confront some of our dark statistics around domestic and sexual violence. Rugby communities can play a part in that. A couple of years ago we developed a shared set of values in the Rugby Way. We’re asking rugby as a community to be welcoming, open, to treat everyone the same, and to help people deal with some of the things that are still dark statistics for this country. It’s still relatively early on in that programme but I’m looking forward to seeing that evolve because I believe over generations, rugby could make a real difference to the way New Zealand presents itself as a country. 

One of the things we want to be better equipped at, is to embrace tikanga, and deepen the relationship with our Māori and Pasifika communities. We are trying to be proactive and we have some ideas, but it all comes back to our desire for rugby to be welcoming, and that means ensuring people can feel they can participate.

In my time we have done three or four significant content or broadcast agreements. We have reached a very good result for New Zealand in our recent deal with Sky. We have globalised a significant proportion of our sponsorship revenue, and now have a long-standing principal partner in adidas, which remains the benchmark of global sponsorships. We were able to add AIG to the jersey with the cooperation of adidas, and they brought a significant injection of cash, leverage, energy and resource and have taken not only the All Blacks but also the Black Ferns, the two Sevens teams and the Māori All Blacks into many markets that we would never have got to on our own, and they do it with scale. 

And on reflection, what things would you like to have progressed more?

There are always things you would prefer to have done better or made more progress on and some things are quite slow at the World Rugby level; consensus and democracy means you have to work your way through a process. Having said that, I’ve seen significant reforms of governance, the World Rugby Council has embraced diversity (about 30 percent of the council is female), however there is still work we could be doing around more independence around World Rugby, with less country by country influence on the key decisions. I think we could improve the way the calendar works and have a more valuable series of games on an annual basis, but we should celebrate that the Rugby World Cup has become such a premium event on the global stage.

Back home, we have been a bit slow to take the diversity play forward, and we have some work to do to improve age, gender and background diversity on Rugby boards.

Whilst not a regret, something we need to watch is our focus on safety. We have done some good in this area, but as a game that involves collisions, and collisions put people at risk, we have to continually monitor and look at how we can improve law to improve injury rates. 

Generally speaking I think we have tackled most of the issues in front of us – we have retained our talent largely and keeping the policy that the All Blacks jersey is only for those who stay here and commit to playing rugby in New Zealand has worked well for us. We recently reviewed that policy and reinforced it but again the group that takes this forward will continue to look at this and make their own decisions.

The World Cup in Japan was the first in Asia; from your role on the World Rugby Council, what are the expectations about how the game will grow in Asia in the future?

Japan was an outstanding success and we shouldn’t take that for granted. When we voted in 2009 to allocate 2015 to England and 2019 to Japan we had reservations about whether Japan and Asia were ready, but all of the metrics that have been completed have been phenomenal. They sold 99% of all seats across 48 games which is the best, ever. They blew the TV audience records out of the water, with 54 million people watching Japan play Scotland, and something like 29 million people watched the All Blacks play Ireland in the quarterfinal. The commercial programme was a great success – the commercial revenue topped what was made in 2015 in England, which is the big rugby powers’ market. So, the challenge now is how does Japan build on that legacy and broaden that into an Asian context, because Japan is just a small part of Asia. 

Japan is trying to finalise a new competition which will be regional rather than company-based, and that’s an opportunity, but that also poses a threat as they’re likely to populate that competition with the best players from around the world, and guess where they’ll come from. We have been working at a SANZAAR level to see how we can expand Investec Super Rugby into the Asian continent. 

Do you have a view on how New Zealand Rugby can best promote and support the growth of the game within the sporting culture of our Pacific neighbours?

There are a couple of layers here and one is at the World Rugby level, where we have long been strong advocates for increased fixtures for all of the emerging nations. The challenge for Pasifika nations is that they don’t have the economic base that other countries have, so they generate a large number of players, some of whom would have connections to other countries, which they become ineligible for. We advocated for extending eligibility from three to five years so that makes it harder for the likes of France and England to adopt people from other countries, as they have to legitimately spend five years in that country before they can represent them.

We also supported to revise those rules further to allow players who have finished playing for a tier 1 nation, and who have a legitimate link to another nation, so they could then go back and play for that country (as many of our first and second generation Tongan and Samoan players do). We will continue to support that alongside working with our Oceania Federation to develop the game. This is in addition to our Pacific Sporting Partnership which is a joint venture with the government, to nurture the game at the community level in all of the Pacific nations. 

What do you have planned next?

I want to finish the year strongly. I finish at the end of the year, but there’s still a bit to be done and I want to leave the place in as good a shape as I possibly can for (incoming CEO) Mark Robinson. After that I am going to enjoy the summer. I will enjoy having more time to manage my life around my family and my personal wellbeing. While this job is an enormous privilege, it does drain a lot of time out of your life. If you don’t like watching rugby then it can be painful, but if you’re a rugby tragic, like I am, then you don’t mind so much. Having a bit more time to myself will be good but I do get bored pretty quickly so I’m open to ideas!

In terms of the future, it is likely that I will build a portfolio of directorships, project work and some advisory work and I’ll start looking into that in the new year. Having said that, if an appropriate role came up where I thought I could add some real value then I would consider going back and doing another executive placement, but that would have to be something that I really thought suited to my skillset where I could add significant value. 

Secondary schools, including your own alma mater, Hutt Valley High, are struggling to retain interest in the game; what is the key to engaging more teenagers in the sport of Rugby Union?

There’s no simple answer or we would have initiated it already. The reality is that young people today have a completely different set of attitudes from when I played at Hutt Valley High School.

In my playing days I wasn’t the best player, but I was happy to play for the seconds, and I was eventually given the opportunity to play for the First XV. Young people today, if they are not successful quickly they move on to other things, and that’s one of the challenges we have. We have developed a system where we are sending signals to players really early that they are either good or not so good. The ‘good ones’ group creates their own issues around sense of entitlement and expectation and the large group that we say are not as good, well, the vast majority of them stop playing and that’s a challenge for us because the game needs a broad base.

Photo courtesy of Dave Brownlie, https://photos.brownlie.kiwi.nz/

The game needs to be more contemporary for kids – they want things that are easy to manage and not so time consuming – that’s a challenge for all team sports. If you have an activity that requires a large number of people to be at the same time at the same place too many times a week, then you struggle to get kids and their parents to make that commitment.

The family unit has changed considerably and that can impact our volunteer base as we rely on parents to coach and manage kids’ teams. If we can’t keep parents interested, then we have an issue. That puts so much importance on safety. The rules that make it compulsory for kids to get half a game, the development of artificial turfs so games can be played in winter, and broadening the scope by offering non-contact and shorter forms of the game, all those things have an impact. There’s a big challenge for us in Auckland to make sure we stay relevant to changing demographics.

What are the main factors behind New Zealand Rugby’s long-term success?

I think New Zealand has had a distinct advantage in that parents have been keen to support their children in sporting endeavours early on. We have an environment that encourages kids to get outside - it’s safe, clean, and we have space where kids learn to run, jump, throw, tackle or whatever that may be, and that will be important to retain as we become an increasingly urban population. 

We have a brilliant mix of ethnicities – the Europeans that settled here were hardy folk who brought rugby and cricket with them. Māori certainly embraced rugby and have made a very significant contribution not only to the game, but to the deep culture that sits beside New Zealand rugby, which is unique on the world stage. As well, I think the Pasifika population that arrived in the 1960s, largely to fill our workforce needs, made and still continues to make, an enormous contribution to rugby. 

The All Blacks and Black Ferns have a deep legacy of success, and most of the players who pick that jersey up find another level of resolve to do what they can for that jersey. Every one of those players works to leave the legacy of the black jersey in a better place than when they started. It’s a very powerful thing to witness and be a part of. And behind many of those successes are great coaches and that can be said for any of our successful sports.

What do you think the ideal World Rugby calendar looks like, for the future?

I think we have probably got as good a calendar as we are going to get. I think in an ideal world we would play all the internationals in one run, including Six Nations, but that seems like an immovable block so we’re better off being more realistic. What’s missing from next year onwards, is that the international games outside of the Investec Rugby Championship and Six Nations don’t count for anything except world rankings. The world rankings are important – we’ve certainly used them as a motivator and I’m sure the boys will know they are not sitting at No. 1 – however the reality is that there is no real meaning to those games, so when we play in July and November they don’t really count for anything. So that’s what we were trying to do with the unsuccessful World Nations concept - to give those fixtures some meaning because there would be a Final and at least a winner. I do think that’s a piece of work that should continue but it’s going to take some time. The reason you would do this, is that you would significantly enhance the value (particularly in broadcast and commercial value) for those fixtures, but it would have given us opportunities to increase fixtures for those emerging nations I mentioned earlier.

In Investec Super Rugby I think next year’s continuous run through to Finals will make a difference and we’ve gone back to a full round robin so now the best team will win that competition without questions around how some teams got there. The Investec Rugby Championship will also have some changes to freshen that competition, but they are yet to be announced.

Steve Tew
CEO, New Zealand Rugby

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