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Former skipper David Kirk has warned the All Blacks' planned private equity deal with US investors is a "slippery slope" that could see the legendary rugby team sold out to commercial interests.
Kirk, who led the All Blacks to their first Rugby World Cup title in 1987, is now chairman of New Zealand's Rugby Players' Association, which opposes the deal in its current form and has offered an alternative.
He told AFP that fans needed to understand the long-term risks of the proposed tie-up between New Zealand Rugby and California-based investment firm Silver Lake Partners.
"I think it's probably the biggest change for New Zealand rugby since professionalism," he said.
"And quite possibly, depending on what happens in the future, (it's) the moment when people will look back and say 'that's when New Zealand Rugby began to find itself in a difficult situation'."
Since hanging up his boots, Kirk has forged a successful business career and stayed in touch with the game through his work with the Rugby Players' Association.
The 60-year-old now finds himself at loggerheads with NZR, concerned the governing body is pursuing a partnership that could damage the All Blacks' legacy in the name of maximising profits.
"When your aim is to commercialise, or perhaps over-commercialise that type of brand, you can end up with some unwelcome and unexpected outcomes," Kirk said.
"People feel that something they own and hold precious has been diminished and treated like a commodity in the marketplace. (It) definitely degrades their emotional attachment."
The Silver Lake deal involves the US firm paying $280 million for a 12.5 percent stake in NZR's commercial rights, and the right to negotiate merchandise and broadcast deals worldwide.
The focus for the Americans is the All Blacks, the three-time world champions recognised globally as the benchmark in rugby union.
NZR believes it is a one-off chance to reset the cash-strapped body's finances, providing money for priorities such as women's and grassroots rugby, as well as creating a legacy fund ensuring financial stability well into the future.
- 'There's no plan' -
But Kirk's players' union has the right of veto and is insistent it will not be pushed into giving a green light without due diligence.
Kirk said it appeared NZR had taken a "cart before the horse" approach and decided early that private equity was the solution to its financial woes without considering alternatives.
He said there were no meaningful details of how Silver Lake actually intended to boost revenues, which has led to fears among some commentators the All Blacks could be wheeled out for meaningless money-spinning exhibition matches.
"This is one of the biggest issues in the whole saga, there's no plan... New Zealand Rugby are saying once Silver Lake is in we'll build a plan together," he said.
Kirk said a worst-case scenario could see Silver Lake fail to meet its targets, forcing NZR to make up the shortfall by selling a bigger stake of its revenue rights.
The players' association last week outlined their own fundraising proposal for NZR to sell five percent of the rights in a sharemarket float that would attract both New Zealand financial institutions and "mum and dad" investors.
NZR reacted furiously, accusing the association of trying to sabotage its arrangement with Silver Lake.
Kirk dismissed the response as "bizarre" but said the players' association remained open-minded about all proposals and wanted to engage in good-faith negotiations with NZR.
He said football's recent European Super League debacle was a "particularly nasty" example of what happened when pursuit of profits outweighed sporting integrity, pointing out that rugby also had issues with private investment.
"Look at the mess Europe's got into, whether it's France or the UK, with individual private equity invested into clubs and then those clubs not releasing players for Test match windows." he said.
"(They're) basically overspending and getting into financial difficulties and having to sell parts of their competitions.
"They've gone onto the slippery slope that we've tried hard to keep New Zealand off."