The Rugby Insider: Warwick Syers

Sunday Star Times
Last updated 20:58 17/05/2008

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Warwick Syers will probably hate the headline The Insider. It serves as a reminder of a previous life, a time when he was at the nerve centre of the game. They were heady days.

To be a director on the New Zealand Rugby Union board is to enjoy unparalleled power and influence over the game. You are privy to its deepest, darkest secrets. You know not just the key players, but what they are paid, which coach is next in line for the chop, who is behaving badly, and who is in line for a promotion.

You know all this, but you can't tell anyone. When you become a NZRU board member you agree to keep your mouth shut. You take a vow of silence. Only chairman Jock Hobbs is permitted to speak publicly on board matters. And if you break the golden rule the consequences are severe.

This was the world Syers moved in for six years until his world came crashing down around his ears last month.

His tenure on the board was up for renewal at the NZRU's annual meeting in Wellington and his nomination he was the appointment committee's preferred candidate was expected to be rubber-stamped.

However, he was beaten by North Harbour's Gerard Van Tilborg in what was a blunt protest vote from the provinces. They were, and remain, unhappy with the NZRU board's part in the Rugby World Cup disaster. Until Syers was axed the board had escaped unscathed. But the re-appointment of Graham Henry as All Blacks coach was the final straw and given an opportunity to register their displeasure, the provinces did not tarry and Syers became the scapegoat.

"I'm not bitter," he says. "Bitter is not the right word. I am a little angry angry at the way it was done. That none of the [provinces], who I thought I had a pretty good relationship with, gave me a heads up before they voted.

"The feedback I was getting was positive so it was a sad way to bow out."

Had the entire board been up for re-election, many of his colleagues would have suffered a similar fate.

Some may have even realised the writing was on the wall and fallen on their swords. Many are still surprised they didn't in the hours after that fateful loss in Cardiff. But, as yet, Syers is the only casualty.

Syers sat in the mighty Millennium Stadium with the rest of the board and on that fateful day when the All Blacks crumbled before his eyes. "There was a sense of devastation," he says now. "The directors were all sitting together and could not believe it. We went back to the hotel and there was not much to say, nothing we could do, so we all went to bed. It was a very early night."

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No hitting the sauce? No drowning of sorrows? No pact to commit hari-kari?

"It was never contemplated that we would all fall on our swords," he says. "Certainly we looked at ourselves and where we might have been culpable. But really I think that would have been a ridiculous decision to take. It wasn't the board out there on the paddock.

"You would have to be a fool not to recognise only three games of rugby mattered last year and unfortunately they failed in the first one. Them's the breaks. There were issues around the refereeing that were unfortunate. They have not been spoken about by New Zealand rugby because it's not politically expedient to do so. But the reality was there wasn't a penalty, and how many games of rugby do you see when there is not a penalty in the second half? If you see the game in slow-mo you can see all the [French] feet offside. But that's by the by. You get on with it and get over it. But it was very unfortunate for New Zealand rugby. Think now of all the youngsters that would be lining up every Saturday with a rugby ball instead of a soccer ball."

Syer's legacy, like many All Blacks, has been tarnished by the world cup loss. However, he will be remembered fondly in some quarters. As chairman of the board's business and finance committee, the Whangarei accountant oversaw a purple patch for the NZRU. Its balance sheet includes an incredible $80m reserve fund thanks to foreign exchange earnings. Despite the massive mountain of money the union's hedging policy has polarised conservative rugby types and financial experts alike. Some say the union is gambling with the game's future and it's only a matter of time before it comes unstuck. But there's no denying it has been wildly successful.

The debate is healthy and valid, but Syers says it had been lopsided because the union is in full possession of the facts. The other side led by the media isn't, he claims.

"The facts are we have a comprehensive policy with set trigger points on when to repatriate funds. It isn't ad hoc. Those triggers are set with the best advice in the country. It's not just staff and directors setting them. I think it's a prudent, considered and comprehensive policy so it's crazy that people are writing articles in the paper saying the rugby union is gambling with the exchange rate. They are the circumstances every exporter is facing at the moment."

But not everyone in rugby is feeling so flush. The provinces are bleeding cash as they try and compete in the Air New Zealand Cup, which even the NZRU admits is unsustainable in its existing format. No one seems to want to take the blame for the crisis. Market forces are culpable. But so is the NZRU board. After all it was the board who decided to expand the competition to 14 teams. Those unions now in strife must now shoulder some of the blame. They gave an undertaking to live within strict financial guidelines and have not.

But only a fool would have forfeited an opportunity to play in the premier division, even if it required a punt on future income streams. Syers has some sympathy for their plight.

But he's not entirely convinced the provinces are now acting in their own best interests.

"I will say this and I hope you bloody well print it quite frankly: One issue with the board, and I'm not inferring in any way it is split between metro [city] and provincial. It has been a wonderful board to work on and Jock [Hobbs] is a wonderful chairman and we always worked to a consensus. But one of the disappointing things is that I was one of the people representing the provinces because that's where I come from. But in their wisdom the provincial unions decided to bring another metro person on board, a metro person who is publicly on record saying he doesn't want 14 teams in the Air New Zealand Cup.

"So the trouble is if the board ends up making a decision later this year to cut the number of teams back to 12 or 10 some of the provincial unions will rue the day."

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