The term ‘back office’ can be overused at times when assessing a sports organisation, but with Wellington Rugby it is hard to come up with any conclusion other than things are not right.
Last year’s ITM Cup campaign was an unmitigated disaster, with just one win to the Wellington Lions in the entire season for the first time since 1894. The team lurched from one defeat to another, setting new levels of embarrassment along the way. Losing to Northland by 30 points, throwing away a 21-point half-time lead at Eden Park, going down to Tasman at home by more than 20 points, and being defeated for just the second time in the last 29 matches against Taranaki were the stand-outs, but they tell only part of the story.
All of this was played out in front of rapidly depleting crowds. Ten years ago the number of season ticket-holders was over 15,000 (with a waiting list). Last year the attendance for some games hovered around the 1,000 mark.
The complex intertwining of the Hurricanes and Lions franchises, including the Wellington Rugby Football Union (WRFU) having a 50 percent share in the Hurricanes, has meant that provincial rugby has largely taken a back seat in terms of preparation and planning. This was exemplified by the appointment of Wellington Lions coach Chris Boyd to the Hurricanes role in the middle of last year, all the while carrying on with his Wellington job.
He had a fair bit to do for the Hurricanes, not least filling several holes due to people leaving at the end of last season. On top of this he had the role of New Zealand Under 20s coach, which is one of New Zealand Rugby Union’s marquee jobs. And the 2014 Junior World Cup was being held in New Zealand for the first time, adding to the pressure. As a result of all this, Wellington was, unsurprisingly, ill-prepared at the start of the campaign, and it never got better.
So who signed off retaining Boyd as the Wellington coach with all that going on? There was never any comment on that, despite the rumours that, because Boyd was contracted until the end of the year, finding a replacement would be expensive.
The penny-pinching did not stop there. The incumbent number 10, Lima Sopoaga, asked for a moderate and justified pay rise prior to the start of the season. It never came, Sopoaga moved to Southland, and five different players were used in that vital position over the first six games.
Apologists pointed out that there was a higher-than-normal injury toll during the season, and that was true. But Wellington is a big province, its club competition is as strong as most, and its Under-19 team are national champions. There is player depth. Meanwhile, various IT projects are said to be stuttering, and there is a high turnover of staff at head office.
Then there was the appointment of Boyd’s successor, and the process around it. A press release came out just after 5pm on 19 December announcing that Earl Va’a had been appointed Lions coach. That was announced five minutes after the office shut down for just under a month, with nobody available for comment.
The selection of Va’a raised eyebrows, especially as there were some massive doubts over the process. The chair of the selection committee was Ken Laban, a close personal friend and long-time mentor of Va’a. Laban had to come out himself and state that he declared his conflict of interest at the start of the process, but the Wellington Rugby Union did not consider it to be an issue.
When an organisation is developing a reputation for poor governance and lack of transparency, it becomes even more vital that everything must appear to be above board. The fact that it was left to Laban himself to clarify his position said a fair bit in itself.
Va’a may well have interviewed well, and been the right man for the job — and we wish him the best for the challenges ahead — but with such a behind-closed-doors policy it is impossible for us, the paying customer, to know.
So we head into another rugby season with a general feeling of mistrust and disappointment at how the national sport is being run in the capital. It would appear that under the current WRFU set-up, only the players can turn this around.