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Under review: Wellington union looks within

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Lima Sopoaga

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STAGS STAR: Lima Sopoaga was one who got away from Wellington’s setup.

The Wellington Rugby Football Union has launched an independent review into all aspects of its operations.

WRFU chairman Tony Duffin made the announcement to staff yesterday. Duffin, and chief executive James Te Puni, stressed that the review was not in reaction to Wellington’s disastrous NPC Premiership campaign, in which they’ve lost all eight matches and been relegated to the Championship for 2015.

Many facets of the union have come under scrutiny during the Lions’ season and the review is expected to be completed late next month.

In the meantime there’s a bloodlust circulating in the wider Wellington rugby community. People want accountability, even change, as they watch the Lions lurch from one limp loss to another.

High performance and academy programmes have been questioned. As have funding models, coaching appointments, recruitment, you name it.

“In terms of the review, we already know what some of the things are that we need to adjust. We will adjust for next year because this result isn’t good enough for Wellington rugby and we all know it,” Te Puni said of the NPC season.

A review buys time. It helps skirt issues and eliminates the need for anyone to admit fault right now.

Te Puni accepts none anyway and didn’t pass any on to the Lions’ coaches or players either.

The same board, chief executive, high performance manager and coaches created a team and environment in which Wellington were able to progress to last year’s NPC final. That’s good enough for Te Puni.

What’s happened this time doesn’t weaken Wellington’s brand or diminish the standing of Lions coach Chris Boyd or his ability to go on and coach the Hurricanes next year. This season, to quote Te Puni, is “disappointing” but hardly devastating.

“If we were looking at it and saying: is this the ideal lead-in [for Boyd] to the Hurricanes’ season? Clearly it’s not. Does it significantly impact his ability to work with [Hurricanes assistant coaches] John Plumtree and Clark Laidlaw and Richard Watt in leading the Hurricanes? No it doesn’t. It doesn’t, it’s a completely different group of players.”

Boyd and the team were instead crippled by injuries.

Te Puni reels off the numbers: 10 season-ending ailments, 18 problems of three weeks or more, not to mention other players off on All Blacks duty.

But what about first five-eighth Lima Sopoaga? He’s happily winning games for Southland now and stories persist about how much Wellington did to keep him.

“We had an offer out there [to Sopoaga] for three months and the coach was deeply involved in that as well and both he and I were gutted that we didn’t get that result,” Te Puni said.

That offer was as high as Wellington could go within “a framework we work within”. Yet the union are regarded as tight, scrimping on development funding and player wages.

“In 2004 the academy budget was $186,000 and this year it’s $394,000. The average player salary went up five per cent last year and Wellington Rugby pays an average salary of 18 per cent ahead of the national average across 13 of the 14 [provincial] unions.”

Ask the question and Te Puni has the answer. His responses will divide opinion, as do most things he does. But Te Puni remains comfortable with his own performance and confident that any damage from the Lions’ season will be negligible, provided the team win promotion back to the Premiership for 2016.

“The board, CE, staff, players, coaches, we’re all part of the mechanism and all I can say is that when the team performs poorly, that we’re all gutted. In terms of accountability for it, people will start throwing names around and look at the coach, look at the CE, look at the board. The reality is a lot more complex than that.”

HAMISH BIDWELL – The Dominion Post

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