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Is Rome burning?

  • By Rolling Maul 

According to legend, the Roman emperor Nero set fire to the capital of the Roman empire on the night of 19 July, AD 64 and fiddled while the city burned. According to the historical record, the fire destroyed much of the city and threw the population into a panic. It also destroyed the emperor’s image, and provoked a financial crisis and currency devaluation that made a permanent impact on the Roman economy.

Rolling Maul wonders if the analogy is apt to apply to the state of New Zealand Rugby in 2024, as was referenced in the media following Thursday’s Special General Meeting of the New Zealand Rugby Union Incorporated in Wellington, in which the owners of the game, (the Provincial Unions), voted overwhelmingly to ensure that their voice continues to be clearly heard?

There is no fire – and New Zealand Rugby has no Nero.

In fact, despite the protestations of the New Zealand Rugby Players Association, which represents a tiny faction of New Zealand’s rugby community, through Thursday’s vote, the flames of a so-called “civil war” within rugby union (again promoted by the media) have been largely extinguished.

At yesterday’s meeting, the majority of provincial unions that comprise New Zealand Rugby voted to reformat the national Board so it retains links with the people who play it across the country, with a new Board to “be appointed as soon as practicable”. This is a decision which ought to be applauded by all who support New Zealand’s national game.

New Zealand Rugby’s Board acknowledged the decision of the Special General Meeting and immediately undertook to implement it as quickly as possible. In doing so, the outgoing Board says that it continues “to be focused on all aspects of the game, from community rugby through to our Teams in Black, competitions and sponsors.”

However, Rolling Maul notes that while the outgoing Board have made an admirable statement, in doing so, they have placed an impossible task on the incoming Board. The reconciliation of commercial and community goals is one which few sports have been able to successfully undertake. Ultimately, one acquiesces to the other. Money predominantly trumps participation.

The two objectives do not happily co-exist in the natural world of sport.

The failure of the Roman empire was primarily the result of economic issues. New Zealand Rugby is in a parlous financial situation, where the thrill of private equity investment has supported semi-professional frameworks in the community game.

Rolling Maul suggests that the wealth of rugby in New Zealand lies within New Zealand rugby’s communities. New Zealand Rugby’s new Board must be prepared to accept that the game’s strength does not rely on money, but much more on the goodwill of the community. In other words, less “trickle-down” theory (where the bulk of funds support a minority), and more “grassroots investment” (which supports the majority).

The last emperor of Rome, Augustus, wryly observed that, “every victory enlarges the magnitude of our possible defeat”. Rolling Maul suggests that the success of the Provincial Unions in securing their proposal at Thursday’s Special General Meeting now fully exposes the fate of rugby in New Zealand, to the incoming Board.


Words of encouragement below by Russell Poole to Wellington’s clubs on Thursday – posted below without comment: 

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