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ITM Cup - Counties v Wellington, 27 September 2014

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.

Graeme Beasley

One of those rare people: a born and bred Wellingtonian. And enough of a Wellingtonian to know how to pronounce Majoribanks Street. Has a soft spot for the Makara wind farm, the south coast and the bucket fountain, but refuses to toot the horn in the Mt Victoria tunnel. Very familiar in handling the full range of emotions generated by supporting Wellington sports team. Works in IT.