Last Monday’s Board meeting saw Stewart Mitchell voted in by his fellow Board members as Chair of New Zealand Rugby (NZR), with Dr Farah Palmer elected as Deputy Chair. We caught up with them to find out more about the pair who will be governing NZR through what is a revolutionary time for the administration of our national game.
Stewart, a business consultant and former NZ Colts representative brings over 20 years of governance experience to the Chair role; and Farah, Associate Dean (Māori) for Massey Business School and former Rugby World Cup winning Black Ferns Captain share an obvious passion for the game and some big picture goals for where we should be headed next.
It has been well documented that COVID-19 brought a lot of disruption for our sport, but it has also helped people to fall back in love with their local rugby communities. The extremely difficult months that saw empty rugby fields and quiet sheds gave us time to look at what works for our communities and build on relationships around the country, rather than make decisions in isolation.
From his time as Chair of Canterbury Rugby, Stewart is close to the issues that have challenged New Zealanders in investing time and energy into the community game. As Rugby World Cup Committee Director and current Chair of the New Zealand Māori Rugby Board, Farah is passionate about the growth of the women’s game and the impact Māori have had on rugby and how the sport contributes to the wellbeing of Māori, as well as women and girls.
With so many sports and physical recreation available to New Zealanders, Farah believes the focus needs to be on how we can be less restrictive, away from the thinking that people play rugby and only rugby, and instead consider how getting involved in our game can complement an overall active lifestyle. Rugby clubs have long been social and cultural hubs across the country and there is huge potential in how we can strengthen them as community hubs with a family-focus.
This is why they support the move to inject new investment streams and capability into NZR so strongly - the traditional tension between High Performance and the community game has been holding us back. The potential injection of Private Equity will give us those revenue drivers that support a stronger separation between the two, giving each the attention they need, while also understanding that one cannot survive without the other. This includes getting more investment into the Provincial Unions, clubs and Māori Rugby to ensure the programmes are there for participants to get into.
Stewart says “We still have regions around New Zealand where women are keen to get on the field, but we don’t have the programmes available for them, and we have a drop off around the Under 19 age group in the men’s game. On the other side of the coin we have clear issues with our international calendar and are committed to sorting out our professional competition with New Zealand, Australia and Pasifika teams. We also have to make rugby more compelling for our fans and we are working with our media partners on this. The game itself has its own challenges with stoppages and technology impacting the flow of the game – we have the opportunity to tidy that up and make the sport more enjoyable to watch”.
While their focus areas range across the breadth and depth of New Zealand rugby, it is experience from their own rugby journeys that anchor their goals.
Stewart credits his rugby playing days and time spent at his local Shirley Rugby Club for friendships that have lasted with ease through the years.
Despite a couple of years spent in London, I'm born and bred in Canterbury, and my rugby friendships run deep, formed in the middle of a scrum and at the bottom of a ruck. Despite rough encounters on the field, rugby has given me lifelong friendships.
Farah has been in love with rugby since her university days, and grew up in the heart of the King Country where Colin Meads was a local legend. Rugby has had a big impact on her life, from its body-positive environment helping her to gain confidence to its levelling nature helping people of all backgrounds come together as a team. She takes any opportunity to give back, whether it’s as a player development manager in Manawatū working with players on what life outside of rugby looks like, or a stint as a coach.
“I wasn’t a very good coach” Farah laughed, “I feel I’m better behind the scenes, and love seeing the impact of my work around a board table or in supportive roles can have on people’s lives and rugby journeys”.
Farah’s personal outlook has always been to focus less on 10-year plans and is instead guided by her values and is open to opportunities that align with them.
I’ve always thought to be brave and give it a go, take every opportunity to learn, contribute where I can and try and make a difference that is long-lasting.
When asked about what each other brings to their roles, the mutual respect and admiration leaves no doubt that our game is in great hands.
“Farah has been hugely successful in everything she does. Her contribution around the Board table is immense and she is such a great advocate for women’s rugby and Māori rugby development. She is measured, calm, thoughtful and is hugely influential.”
“Stewart brings so much passion and experience. He is a change agent with boundless wisdom and enthusiasm. He is deeply respected by our stakeholders and his friendly, outgoing and humble nature will represent us well.”