Dr Farah Palmer has qualities the game’s leadership are sorely lacking

Election as chair of New Zealand Rugby would be a historic moment for the sport

Dr Farah Palmer is a leading contender to become the next chair of NZR. File photograph: Getty Images

Dr Farah Palmer is a leading contender to become the next chair of NZR. File photograph: Getty Images

 

Dr Farah Palmer is many things. A Rugby World Cup-winning captain. A national representative for a decade. Associate dean and senior lecturer at the Massey University School of Management. Chair of the New Zealand Maori Rugby board. The first woman to be elected to the New Zealand Rugby board in its 124-history.

Any way you look at it, it is quite a CV. It is also a public relations dream and there is little doubt the election of Palmer to succeed the out-going Brent Impey as chair of New Zealand Rugby at the union’s AGM in April would be a historic moment for the sport.

Impey’s recent revelation that he will be standing down from a position he has held since 2014 opens the door. A World Rugby Hall of Famer, Palmer would be an appropriate choice by her colleagues in a year when New Zealand will host the women’s Rugby World Cup.

As the first female chair, as well as being part Maori, hers would be a genuinely feelgood appointment that both the country and the game globally would embrace. But while public relations are a handy advantage for any executive action, they should not be the driving reason behind it.

Rugby Australia showed that with its appointment of Raelene Castle three years ago. For all the furore over the Israel Folau saga, and the sympathy Castle gained in the aftermath, questions remain over the success of her tenure at RA. So too after her spell at NRL club Canterbury before that.

On both occasions, Castle lacked the material support and background within the sports to succeed in what were tough assignments. Even prior to those roles, opinion remains divided as to the legacy of her six-year tenancy as chief executive at New Zealand netball.

But Palmer is not Raelene Castle, and NZR cannot afford anything but the best leader it can get. The game certainly needs good news as it lurches on the precipice, bracing itself for the post-Covid world, but the former Test captain would be under no illusion as to the challenge she would inherit, and the political minefield she would have to negotiate.

In four years on the board, she has been exposed to the flawed financial model on which the game operates, with outgoings extending beyond incomings, while the connection with the community gradually erodes as provinces battle for financial survival.

The incumbent led the successful renegotiation of the union’s television rights deal, but Impey is not someone to whom the rugby community really warmed.

Palmer is different. Not only is she conscious of the importance of the connection between the professional and community games, but she has also lived it. Flying the flag for a national women’s competition that bears her name, Palmer has circulated among the provinces every year and been seen. She is known in the community and has a network of relationships Castle never had.

Dr Farah Palmer is a World Rugby Hall of Famer. File photograph: Getty Images
Dr Farah Palmer is a World Rugby Hall of Famer. File photograph: Getty Images

Raised in the tiny township of Piopio in King Country, the province of the great Colin Meads, Palmer grew up in a cross-cultural family with a Pakeha father and Maori mother. She has never forgotten those rural roots, nor the important role rugby plays as a focal point in smaller provinces and communities. She understands their issues.

No soft touch

As chair, she would be in a better position to help find solutions and provide the board, perhaps for the first time since the amateur era ended, with a softer more understanding face. This is especially important at a time when the residue of the previous regime remains at executive level, with its almost tunnel visioned focus on the All Blacks, and on money.

Make no mistake, Palmer is no soft touch, and would bring a balanced voice to the union’s seemingly mad rush into the arms of private investment. Her mother once described her as having a “killer instinct”. Former teammates agree, some noting that while her popularity within the Black Ferns was never in doubt, she did not tolerate any “mucking around” once the “business” started.

Standards had to be high, and all eventualities catered for, if success was to be achieved. Recognised for her leadership abilities the year after she debuted for New Zealand, Palmer became captain in 1997 and led the Black Ferns to consecutive victories at the 1998, 2002 and 2006 Rugby World Cups.

By the time she retired ending a 14-year representative career, she had played 35 Tests for her country and found the time to complete a PhD as well.

A member of the Ngati Maniapoto (Waikato) iwi, Palmer took her first steps into governance when co-opted onto the Maori Rugby Advisory Board as an independent in 2007, the year after she hung up her boots.

Her appointment to the New Zealand board in late 2016, taking the Maori seat vacated by Wayne Peters, only came about after a period of self-reflection. This included a few doubts, she later admitted, as to whether she possessed the skills to carry out the role.

The former Black Ferns captain was the first woman to be elected to the New Zealand Rugby board in its 124-history. Photograph:
The former Black Ferns captain was the first woman to be elected to the New Zealand Rugby board in its 124-history. Photograph:

While Palmer might not carry the commercial acumen touted by some of her ambitious colleagues and potential rivals, the modesty, humility and total transparency with which she conducts herself are qualities the game’s leadership sorely needs to show more of. Commercial experience aside, it is difficult to mark her down on anything else.

But the politics of rugby, as with any other vocation, are not without principles that are embedded in nature. One is that the brighter the light and profile of the position, the greater the number of moths who will gravitate to it.

Palmer has never been a good ‘moth’. It is one of the traits that made her such a successful captain; respected and trusted by her peers, a leader in deed as much as word, and someone who was considered, and overcame her doubts, before starting down roads that have invariably led to achievement.

In a roundabout way, the fact that she might be uncertain about putting herself forward for this role too, is probably as good a reason as any, as to why she is the perfect fit for it. - Guardian

Irish women in rugby’s corridors of power

IRFU

Mary Quinn –  Quinn became the first woman to be elected to the 26-strong IRFU committee in 2015. 

Su Carty - In 2017 Carty became the third Irish representative on World Rugby's Council (a third male rep is not allowed). She is the second female member on the IRFU committee.

Caroline Currid - The sports psychologist is on the National Professional Game Board. 

Maeve Carton has been co-opted onto the IRFU finance committee alongside 11 men, while Fiona Sweeney has been co-opted onto the IRFU Commerical and Marketing committee alongside eight men.  

The IRFU have “eight women sitting across 12 committees” that still retain a large majority of men. However, a union spokesman stated: “The IRFU is targeting a minimum of 20 per cent female representation across playing, refereeing, coaching, volunteering and committee representation by 2023.”

Leinster

Debbie Carry became senior vice president of the Leinster Branch in August 2020 - she becomes president in 2021/22. She also sits on the management committee. In 2019 Moira Flahive was added to a 39-strong Leinster executive. She also joined the 10-person Leinster management committee in a new role as chair of the province's "inclusivity committee."    

Connacht    

In September 2020 Ann Heneghan was elected president of the Connacht Branch, becoming the first woman to hold this title in any province. Niamh Hoyne is head of finance while Natasha McFadden is HR manager.

Ulster

Audrey Robinson (Head of Finance and Operations) and Karen Brown (Head of HR and Business Services) are on the Senior Management Team while Ellvena Graham and Robyn McMurray are part of the Management Committee

Munster

Jennifer Donovan and Regina Moran are on the nine-person board with Claire Cooke and Fiona Murphy on the eight strong Senior Management Team.

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