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Provinces reject governance change, sparking fears of a "civil war" in New Zealand rugby

All Blacks captain Sam Cane leads his team onto the field for the second Bledisloe Rugby test between the All Blacks and the Wallabies at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020. Cane announced Monday May 13, 2024 that he was retiring from international rugby at the end of the 2024 season. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Domestic provinces have overwhelmingly rejected a new governance plan for New Zealand Rugby in a move some observers fear will fracture the national sport along amateur and professional lines.

At a special general meeting Thursday, the 26 provincial unions voted down a new governance system which had been recommended by an independent panel and which was favored by the sport's national organizers. They voted instead for a system which is closer to the status quo and ensures the provinces are represented on the NZR board.

The New Zealand Rugby Players’ Association, which represents the country's professional players, had threatened to break away from the national body and set up a separate commercial entity if the new governance plan was not adopted.

In a statement released immediately after the vote, NZRPA chief executive Rob Nichol condemned the provinces, saying the governance changes had wide support from NZR, Super Rugby clubs, professional players and some provincial unions.

“The expert panel laid out what we needed to do perfectly in their recommendations,” he said. “It was a great opportunity for the game to make the changes required.

“It’s incredibly unfortunate we haven’t taken that opportunity and ended up with what the expert labeled status quo or worse."

The general meeting voted 59-31 against the system recommended by the expert panel, and 61-31 in favor of an alternative proposal which ensures provinces are represented on the board. Provincial unions have differing numbers of votes depending on their size, and proposals needed a two-thirds majority to pass.

The panel findings were released last year in a report authored by David Pilkington. The report said the existing governance system is not fit for purpose in the professional era and change is urgently needed.

It said New Zealand has too many professional players and that the National Rugby Championship, contested by provincial unions, is not fit for purpose.

The report said necessary change is being delayed because NZR does not want to antagonize the provinces.

“The member unions are financially dependent on NZR. We would expect the national body to use this point of leverage to resolve these kinds of problems,” the report said.

The Pilkington report recommended the current NZR board should be replaced by a board of nine members selected by an independent appointment panel. Appointments would favor members with business or governance experience over rugby knowledge.

The alternative proposal, backed by the Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury, Hawkes Bay, Bay of Plenty, North Harbour and Northland unions, would reserve three places on a nine-member board for provincial representatives.

Fears of a “civil war” in New Zealand rugby have been heightened by a letter written by the NZRPA to New Zealand Rugby this week.

The letter warned that if the provincial unions get their way “the professional players will no longer pass to NZRU, via a collective employment agreement, the right to govern the professional game."

“A new body will be established to govern the professional game in New Zealand. Directors appointed by the professional players will represent the players on this body and on other bodies such as NZRC (New Zealand Rugby Commercial).”

The rift between the professional and amateur ranks of rugby have been exacerbated by NZR’s decision last year to sell a percentage of its commercial rights to the California-based investment company Silver Lake.

The decision is seen to have accelerated the push for a more commercial governance model.

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AP rugby: https://apnews.com/hub/rugby