The New Zealand Rugby Union Incorporated (NZRU) was in the headlines this past week, not for its on-field achievements, but as a result of its off-field governance battle for the soul of the game.

At the heart of the current Board Room maul is a fight for possession of the right to make national decisions in the best interests of the game, with New Zealand Rugby’s “shareholders,” (the Provincial Unions) and their elected Board, in dispute over the future path to follow.


(Are “representation” and “competence” mutually exclusive terms?)

“Representation” and “competence” are sometimes presented as mutually exclusive terms in sport governance, with an often-incorrect assumption formed that those whose interests lie with the grassroots of the game are unable to make decisions concerning its present and tuture state, in an objective and skilful manner.

The actual issue, which is being masked by the current unseemly debate within the wider rugby whanau, is a lack of clarity on the purpose of the NZRU. Only when there is agreement as to "why" the NZRU exists, can proper decisions concerning its governance in the best interests of this purpose be made.

A good place to start is with section 2.1 of NZRU’s Constitution, which contains eight focused statements describing its purpose. Condensed into the word-cloud shown below (with the size of each word representing the number of times it appears in section 2.1), the eight statements are clearly focused “on the game,” with a substantive focus on "how it is played", rather than on "how it can be commercialised" to maximise it's financial value.

(NZRU’s Constitution is focused on “the game” not the “commercial opportunity”)

So perhaps the “elephant in the [board] room” is clear to see, but invisible to the eyes engaged in the current dispute. Is rugby primarily a global business? Or is rugby primarily a game for the community? Can it be both? And if so, which purpose takes precedence? The current Constitution is framed around the community game; those calling for governance reform consider the game to be primarily a commercial enterprise.

Until the existential questions above are clearly answered, those responsible for rugby’s governance will continue to talk past each other, with each party absolutely self-assured of their governance competence.