The rugby challenge

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Waikato Rugby Union’s newest directors have had a hectic start to their roles as they help boost the organisation’s commercial smarts.

Diane Hallifax and Anna Connell were appointed to the board in July, just ahead of the start of the NPC season.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” says Diane of the pair’s early weeks, which have included attending matches as well as board meetings, during a memorable Ranfurly Shield run.

Both women were invited to apply in June when the union was looking for two new directors, with each bringing a different skill and background to the role, Diane in HR and Anna in marketing and digital media.

“They really want people who’ve got a bit more commercial nous, I suppose, so that was another factor,” says Diane.

Despite the Shield, these are challenging times for the union, as they are for rugby generally, as it seeks to sustain and grow its base in the face of a myriad other recreation options.

Anna can remember the colourful scenes in Hamilton when the Shield was brought back from Auckland in 1993.

That was then, this is now, and Waikato are a second-tier side for this run with the Shield, while the professional era has seen the birth and growing dominance of Super rugby.

Anna says there is an acknowledgement that the landscape is changing. “There is competition for people’s leisure time and that leisure time dollar, and I think that’s something that rugby across the board is acknowledging.”

“I think the strategy of what we’re trying to achieve in terms of sustainability within rugby, we can’t rely on the New Zealand Rugby Union, we have to diversify and think about what else we can be doing,” Diane says.

“Participation is a big issue. It’s not just about the Mitre 10 Cup, it’s about the grassroots, it’s about our kids, it’s about kids participating in sport that rolls into health, wellbeing, resilience.”

Diane knows the importance of elite players as role models after she grew up following rugby in her home town of Te Aroha. “When we were kids there wasn’t Netflix or anything like that, so we went to rugby, that’s what we did.”

Anna’s is a very different story. She says she was honest with the board. “I hadn’t engaged with the game beyond probably the big All Blacks tests for a while. They asked me about that, and I said, look, actually sometimes a bit of distance and objectivity isn’t a bad thing, and they all roundly agreed.

“That’s why, whether it’s women or people of different ages or ethnicities, that broad diversity stuff is important because you do get different points of view and perspectives. I think rugby, like anything, is not immune to the way the world is changing and you need to be able to have people who can bring some new stuff to the table.”

Other rugby unions have also appointed women directors, but Waikato is rare in having two.

Both Diane and Anna attended a New Zealand Rugby-hosted conference on women in governance in rugby, with about 45 women from across the country who sit across union and franchise boards.

“Di and I discovered we were quite lucky in that there were two of us because there are quite a few where they’ve still only got one,” says Anna.

Women’s participation in rugby is an area of potential growth for the sport, likely to get a boost in the case of Waikato from the two women’s appointment to the board.

While their focus is on the sport’s governance generally, they are also keen to build the women’s game, and believe they can have an influence.

“I think no matter what the sport is if you want to play it you should be able to aim to play it at the highest level possible and we should be creating all sorts of pathways through for women,” says Anna.

“Sometimes it’s actually just about the signal that is sent through having two women sitting on a board as opposed to no women sitting on a board.”

“It’s the story telling,” says Diane. “It’s talking about the Farah Palmers of the world, and her journey to play for the Black Ferns, inspiring our young girls to go, you can do this, if you want to play rugby, you can. We’re not going to be influencing them by being on the field, but we can certainly influence by being part of those conversations.”

The two women say there is acknowledgement in the sport that change is needed, particularly around inclusiveness.

“As a sport and as a culture it perhaps has been male dominated,” says Anna. “I think that everybody is quite aware of the fact that some of that needs to change.”

She says that also extends to Māori and Pacific Island representation, and cites the New Zealand union’s respect and responsibility review as an example of the changes that are underway.

“That’s not just touchy feely nice stuff, that’s also about some commercial realities, and this is why boards generally are being given a kick up the bum in terms of diversity, because you need to have a board that reflects the population.”

She says it will take time and points out there are plenty of commercial boards whose predominant target audience is women and yet lack women directors. “Aside from the fact that it’s just good to have equality there’s some real commercial insight you miss out on if you don’t have that representation.”

Away from the bigger picture, both women have been diving into a lot of detail around their roles, with both sitting on two subcommittees as well as the board.

“It’s due diligence in terms of getting up to speed with what’s happening currently, so we can say, have you thought about this, have you thought about that?” says Diane.

In Diane’s case, that includes discussions around developing robust health and safety metrics, concerned with cultural and behavioural change as well as lost time incidents.

“I think even at an early stage we’ve been able to contribute.”

Anna says her appointment, given her marketing perspective, is about looking at the broader picture of what is available to the union in terms of getting more people along to games and getting more engagement.

The two women, both of whom also have experience in other directorships, speak highly of the governance processes at the union, at both national and regional level, including the conference they attended and a thorough induction from the WRU chairman, Colin Groves.

“My observations coming in is that they operate good governance standards,” says Diane. “So our induction, those types of things, things you would expect to see coming on to a board, they’ve done it really well. There’s so much we need to learn but they’ve been providing us with good information at a good time. We’ve been part of some big decisions that have had to be made, right from the get-go.”

“Everybody has been very welcoming and I think quite excited and open to a different point of view and perspective that we might have on things,” says Anna.

“I think it’s been refreshingly wonderful,” adds Diane. “People have been really excited to have us on board.

“There’s a real sense of pride, that’s something I’m excited about. I’m proud of all our clubs as they work relentlessly and our volunteers, that get kids on the fields on
a Saturday.”

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