A risk worth taking

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 August, 2011, 12:00am


Martin Snedden leads the way into his office with the confident air of a man who is in complete control but a container of vitamin supplements sitting in the centre of his desk suggests Snedden is not beyond seeking a little help when the need arises.

And well Snedden might.

As the chief executive officer of Rugby New Zealand 2011, the 52-year-old Kiwi has since 2007 been in charge of his nation's preparations to host the World Cup and with 19 days to go before the on-field hostilities begin - a clash between the All Blacks and Tonga at Auckland's Eden Park - attention on the event is fast reaching fever pitch.

The countdown clock may be ticking but Snedden seems in no great rush to reach for those vitamins and boost his spirits. Not yet anyway.

'Personally, I could recognise right from the start this is the biggest event New Zealand has ever held and one of the most momentous things in the country's history,' says Snedden as he gazes out towards Wellington's storied waters. 'I just wanted to be slap-bang in the middle of it.'

That's exactly where the man finds himself today. And those pills may have disappeared.

Two World Cup promotions were ditched this week after sparking local outrage and international ridicule. The first involved bikini-clad models on motorbikes driving 1,000 sheep through downtown Auckland and the second urged supporters to abstain from sex during the tournament as a way to show support for their team.

This follows controversy over the amount of money fans are being charged for their own version of the All Blacks famous kit, fears local businesses might be planning to raise prices skywards during the RWC's 45 days and a public that seems either to be engulfed in a growing sense of confidence in their own team's chances, or trapped in the thrall of a fear of the great unmentionable. What happens if the All Blacks don't win?

'We have to make sure this event is so damned good that it succeeds no matter what happens to the All Blacks. And we are extremely confident we will do that. Having said that, we know that if the All Blacks do win it will cover up any stuff-ups we might have made,' Snedden says laughing. 'For us, obviously we want both of these things to happen - then the benefits for this country will be enormous.'

At an estimated cost of NZ$310 million (HK$2 billion), New Zealand's World Cup might appear to be a gamble, with a loss of about NZ$40 million forecast.

This is a small nation of just over four million people and to a great majority of the rugby-playing community it really does lie at the very ends of the earth - almost as far as a person can travel.

The event was sold to the International Rugby Board on the premise the entire nation would be transformed into a 'Stadium of Four Million' and to that end organisers have the games themselves, and they have the Real New Zealand Festival, a celebration of everything that is 'quintessentially New Zealand'. That includes concerts, community events, celebrations of the food and wine for which New Zealand is famous and special fan zones in cities all over the country.

But the level of success of such a major sporting event can only ever really be gauged in the staging and, Snedden says, the trump card the country can play is its passion for the game.

'Where else in the world would a prime minister weigh into an issue like the one we have had with the jerseys?' he asks. 'It's a pretty good litmus test for the level of commitment and involvement here. Look, there will also be a few people out to make a fast buck, but you have to try to limit their effect and make sure people know there are other options to make them feel welcome and to show them everything this country is all about.'

For Snedden, there is that challenge and there is the attraction, too, of the risk involved, something he can relate to from his days as a test cricketer for New Zealand, back in the 1980s when he was part of a pace attack that included the great fast bowler Richard Hadlee.

'There's no guarantees of success with this type of thing. There is a lot of risk around it,' says Snedden. 'Here in New Zealand you cannot get more high profile than rugby and if it doesn't go well, whose is the face in front of people? Mine.

'That's quite motivating but that's also part of the thrill - that edge around it. That's part of the attraction I suppose for me as an ex-sportsman. Anyone who takes the field at an international level runs the risk of being hopelessly exposed. But the possible rewards far outweigh the risks and it is the same with this event.'

The first major test of just how New Zealand's preparations are coming was passed when the venue for the October 23 final - Auckland's Eden Park - successfully hosted the Bledisloe Cup clash between the All Blacks and Australia on August 6, which the home side won 30-14.

'There were some saying that Eden Park is not good enough. But we have shown it is. It was the perfect showcase and, might I say, the perfect result,' he says laughing.

'The biggest crowd for 45 years turned up to watch the world's two best teams - that's what it is all about, on the field and off the field.

'If people hadn't yet grasped the enormity of the activities happening in Auckland and across the country, they are now and they certainly will on opening day.''