Sports journalist Gregor Paul’s new book, Black Gold, should have been an easy sell. It promises an inside look at the way the All Blacks have been monetised. And boy howdy, are those things that I’m interested in. Rugby? Big fan my whole life. Business? I’m obviously on the left-hand side of politics, but I still love to understand how business operates.
And so Black Gold could have been the equivalent of the All Blacks’ 1996 performance at Athletic Park against Australia in a howling southerly, where they put on an absolute clinic of a performance a lot of people consider perfect. Instead it was more like the 2022 season where the All Blacks lost three tests at home for the first time, all the while playing a brand of rugby that was pretty crap to watch.
The central thesis of Paul’s book is that money corrupts, and that money has corrupted NZ Rugby absolutely. But he never really proves this point. His thinking barely rises above cliches such as, “In the professional game, money was going to talk”, and, worse, “Money had become the most powerful and influential force rugby had ever known”.
Paul tries to chart a descent of purity in rugby that aligns with the ascent of commercial dominance. It all culminates in the last four years when Ian Foster has struggled to succeed on the field, as NZR has struggled to convince everyone off it of the merits of the Silver Lake investment in New Zealand’s major sport.
It’s really staggering the number of accusations he flings hither and yon but never actually gets around to proving
The whole point of Black Gold is summed up by a failed investigative high point: when the All Blacks went to South Africa last year, it was widely reported that Foster was at huge risk of losing his job and Scott Robertson was going to be called in to replace him. This was after a string of awful performances. Paul concedes that considering a new coach was justified, but “how much pressure was being exerted by investors to see a change at the helm … how much pressure was NZR feeling to appease Silver Lake, and indeed Ineos and Altrad, by giving them Foster’s head?”.
The answer is … not in the book. In fact there is absolutely nothing to support Paul’s breathlessness whatsoever. It’s really staggering the number of accusations he flings hither and yon but never actually gets around to proving. The book is filled with hints and questions and nudges. The rest of the book is Paul’s seeming mistrust of all things commercial and the current NZ Rugby leadership.
It’s a naïve perspective to think that sport can hold true to its amateur purity in an age of professionalism. To start with, there wasn’t any purity of amateur sport. And commercial realities may be uncomfortable but are ultimately necessary. With golf and football being affected by huge money from Saudi Arabia, rugby in New Zealand has not yet had to deal with the moral ambiguities that come from such extreme human rights abuses wanting to greenwash themselves with sport, though Paul hints at it with Ineos’ sponsorship of the All Blacks; a topic that could have done with much more consideration as Ineos is one of the world’s biggest producers of single-use plastics. The Green Party, Greenpeace, and other environmental groups tried to launch petitions and other futile efforts to stop the sponsorship but this is barely covered despite offering the clearest example of what Paul is criticising.
And despite this gnashing of environmental teeth the sponsorship went ahead, and it didn’t seem to stop people from watching the All Blacks. I think that’s ultimately the biggest problem with Paul’s central thesis. Commercialisation is not ruining rugby for most people. It’s only the massive rugby nerds who get all bent out of shape about it. Most people may think that commercial arrangements in sport are bad, but it’s not going to deter anyone from watching. If the All Blacks are winning, people are going to watch. And the All Blacks, as Paul points out, are the winningest men’s team in international sport (the Black Ferns still retain the overall record, though women’s rugby is all but forgotten in this book).
Throughout the book there are hints and complaints from players about their increased commercial obligations, and focusing solely on that would have made for a better book. What do the players think about it all? There are a handful of players’ comments, but exploring this topic further would’ve been much more interesting.
Salesi (Charles) Piutau disappeared from New Zealand with a very exciting career ahead of him. But we don’t hear his voice. Similarly with Lima Sopoaga. Paul notes that it used to be that players left New Zealand at the ends of their careers to cash in on their big names, but this was changing. Younger and younger players are now going overseas. What are the commercial obligations like for those players who left New Zealand? Are there less pressures since they weren’t All Blacks? Are the All Blacks somehow operating in a more commercial environment? We don’t know. These sorts of questions are not even asked, let alone answered. It’s almost like Paul didn’t have the intellectual curiosity to think outside his ‘commercial equals dumb’ point of view.
The book also spends page after page belabouring minor points, or repeating itself. It’s fortunate that NZR only signs up to broadcast deals every five years. It allowed Paul to retell the story of broadcast negotiations with all the flair and excitement of the English back line. Things that may have been fascinating – such as a look into New Zealand’s successful bid for hosting rights to the 2011 Rugby World Cup – gets about three pages. He also manages a remarkable feat of underplaying Sky’s role in the commercialisation of New Zealand rugby while taking too long to not tell us that.
But Paul is an experienced journalist who can tell good stories, for example his exploration of the dynamic between players and officials, and the formation of the Players’ Association. There’s also a fascinating look into the hunt for a jersey sponsor that came down to two very interested parties – Nike and Adidas.
Paul has been given close access to a number of the key people involved in NZ Rugby over the past 27 years, and the interviews with players and officials are the best parts of the book. But it’s clear Paul has people he likes and people he dislikes, which is fine except we don’t understand why. It just seems some are lucky enough to be the good guys in the book, and some not. Chris Moller? Good. Brent Impey? Bad.
There is one mightily cringe introduction to Rob Nichol, head of the Player’s Association since conception, and the bête noire of the NZR over the Silver Lake negotiations. “Having grown up on Stewart Island, a small island off the south coast of the South Island, Nichol had a pioneering spirit – a capacity to forge through tough conditions – which was going to be handy in his new role.” Get a room, Gregor.
His doe-eyed perspective of pre-professionalism rugby in New Zealand is bananas. His claim that before professionalism, the All Blacks didn’t do “scandal [or] off-field dramas” stands up to zero scrutiny (Keith Murdoch would like a word). He also contradicts himself. At one stage NZ Rugby is praised for having turned a profit of a few hundred thousand dollars, and then a few pages later an equal profit is a sign of how badly the current leadership team is doing.
The player and official interviews are great and the anecdotes and recollections will appeal to any rugby fan
There is no doubt a case to be made that the commercial aspects of sport may have come at the expense of the player’s ability to focus on just playing, but that case is not well prosecuted in this book. You get the feeling Paul had his working hypothesis that commercialisation is ruining rugby and there is nothing good about it, then he set out to confirm that point instead of testing it.
As an historical book, it works well. The player and official interviews are great and the anecdotes and recollections will appeal to any rugby fan. Though there are many stories in the book well-known to rugby nerds, there is plenty in here that is new information. It just didn’t sadly didn’t fit with Paul’s hypothesis.
There’s something to be said for the fact that Paul wrote Black Gold at all. He sat down to write a book with an idea in his head. He went out and read about it, he spoke to some of the key people involved, and it must have become apparent that he couldn’t prove what he wanted to. And yet the tenacity of the man to just write it anyway is almost admirable. Though not a pile of lies in the same vein as false memoirs such as James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, or Henri Charrière’s Papillon, those were at least fun to read. Paul manages to not prove a point, take too long to not do it, and waste some fabulous access in the process. Black Gold is the story of one man’s obsession with proving a point that isn’t there to be proven.
Black Gold: Power, Money and the Team that Reshaped Rugby by Gregor Paul (HarperCollins, $39.99) is available in bookstores nationwide.