• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

In defence of NZ Rugby boss Steve Tew

Steve Tew: joined New Zealand Rugby in time for the “storms” of 2003 and 2007. Photo/Getty Images

Naysayers may rail against rugby’s continued “corporatisation” under Steve Tew, but he’s given them plenty to applaud as well.

One way of summarising Steve Tew’s 25-year career as a rugby administrator would be that, as they observe in the US, he knows a thing or two because he’s seen a thing or two.

Tew, who will quit as New Zealand Rugby’s chief executive after the World Cup, is one of a small and shrinking pool of people still involved with the game who were present at the creation of professional rugby in 1995/96. He was the Crusaders’ chief executive from 1996 to 2001. After finishing last in the first-ever Super Rugby championship and sixth in 1997, the Crusaders won the title three times in a row, a feat that hasn’t been matched since.

Tew joined New Zealand Rugby in 2001, becoming its chief at the end of 2007. He was thus in the eye of the storms that followed ignominious failure – the loss of sub-hosting rights to the 2003 World Cup, the 2003 and 2007 World Cup campaigns that ended “not with a bang but a whimper” – and later basked in the afterglow of unprecedented success. (See below.)

RelatedArticlesModule - Steve Tew nz rugby

He might ruefully reflect that another way to summarise his career would be, as they say in France, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same).

When he was getting his feet under the desk at rugby headquarters, the backlash against professionalism – or “corporate rugby” as it was scornfully referred to on talkback radio – was under way.

In 2002, veteran sportswriter Joseph Romanos brought out The Judas Game, whose hard-hitting title was reinforced by two equally incendiary subtitles: All Blacks for Sale and The Betrayal of New Zealand Rugby. Reprising its career-defining role as the root of all evil, money was blamed for rugby’s “imminent eclipse”, along with the administrators who’d sold out the real rugby folk at the grass roots in their unseemly haste to transform the game.

Following Tew’s announcement of his departure and under the headline “New Zealand Rugby must put people before greed”, a Stuff columnist pontificated that the decision to accept jersey sponsorship from AIG, “a Yankee insurance company that sold the world down the river”, amounted to “obeisance to the white American capitalist dream”.

AIG, a contributor to the 2008 global financial crisis, was the beneficiary of the biggest bailout in US history. Within four years it had repaid the full amount with interest. When AIG’s jersey sponsorship was revealed in 2012, terms like “betrayal” and “prostitution” were bandied about and the New Zealand Herald editorialised that the black jersey “is now just another playing strip”. We somehow seem to have dodged that bullet.

Yet another betrayal, according to the late Sir Fred Allen, a former All Blacks captain and coach, was the decision to put the national side’s campaigns on pay TV. Last week, a different Stuff columnist declared that the day rugby took itself off free-to-air television was “the day rugby died”. To which one can only ask: if rugby is dead, which New Zealand sports are alive and kicking?

The irony is that those who now deplore New Zealand Rugby’s worldliness have something in common with old rugby’s sizeable redneck brigade who justified their doomed and destructive love affair with South Africa under the apartheid regime on the basis that politics should be kept out of sport: they seem to think rugby can operate in a vacuum, quarantined – in the current instance – from the socio-economic forces that shape society and immune to the laws of economics, if not simple arithmetic.

Tew has presided over a decisive shift in rugby’s culture that’s reflected in the spectacular growth of the women’s game, the 2017 Respect and Responsibility Review, professional contracts for the Black Ferns and Kendra Cocksedge being the 2018 Kel Tremain Memorial player of the year. Of course, there are still blemishes and the occasional disgrace, and progress isn’t as swift and seamless as the perfectionists insist it should be. But if you won’t settle for anything less than perfection right here, right now, you’ve taken yourself off to the lonely extremities of the real world.

In light of the ongoing and pernicious Israel Folau controversy, it’s interesting to note that New Zealand Rugby’s 2018 annual report refers to the All Blacks’ supporting former Wales captain Gareth Thomas by wearing rainbow laces during last year’s northern tour. Thomas, who is gay and a prominent LGBT rights campaigner, had been injured in a homophobic attack. The support “highlights the respect our national sides have for people no matter their sexuality, ethnicity or gender”.

But then there are still rugby fans who can’t abide All Blacks wearing coloured boots.

Stacey Waaka in action for the Black Ferns Sevens in Hamilton in January. Photo/Getty Images

Stats don’t lie

NZ rugby has had a stellar on-field record during Tew’s tenure.

An NZ Herald assessment of Steve Tew’s 12 years as New Zealand Rugby’s boss was headed “Hit or miss?”

It seems strange it had to ask given the astonishing success achieved on his watch; astonishing and unprecedented notwithstanding the selective reminiscences of the “good old days” brigade.

The All Blacks have won back-to-back World Cups and been the top-ranked team in the world since November 2009. The Black Ferns are the top-ranked women’s team and won World Cups in 2010 and 2017. The men’s and women’s sevens teams both won gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and were world champions in 2013 and 2018. The Black Ferns Sevens, who won a silver medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics, have won four of the six World Rugby Sevens Series since the current format was adopted.

Since 2008, New Zealand have won the annual Under 20s World Cup six times and our franchises have won seven of 11 Super Rugby Championships.

It would be as absurd to give Tew an undue amount of credit for these achievements as it would be to give him next to none. When his contribution was being dismissively downplayed a few years ago, I was reminded of 2002 Oscars host Whoopi Goldberg’s take on the fact that, although Moulin Rouge! secured eight nominations including best picture, Baz Luhrmann didn’t make the best director shortlist: “I guess Moulin Rouge! just directed itself.”

This article was first published in the June 22, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.