Rugby's new man calls the shots
Story by: WAYNE MARTIN - Nelson Mail - Photo by: MARION VAN DIJK
Andrew Flexman has taken over the hot seat as the Tasman Rugby Union's new chief executive and spoke to Wayne Martin about the challenges ahead in his new role.
I'd have to say, in terms of Tasman, I've always liked the story of an emerging union. The Tasman alliance was only formed in 2005, so it's relatively new and I've always felt as a brand that it's strong and that they've punched above their weight as a team.Andrew FlexmanTasman Rugby Union chief executive --------------------
Andrew Flexman is already feeling like a comfortable fit at Tasman rugby headquarters.
Although just two weeks into his role as the Tasman Rugby Union's new chief executive, Flexman is familiar with the territory.
As a former Counties-Manukau board member, he knows all about cash-strapped provincial unions struggling for their survival. It was only two seasons ago that Tasman, Counties, Manawatu and Northland teetered on the brink of expulsion from New Zealand's premier domestic rugby competition, the ITM Cup.
All four survived, and with Tasman now about to announce its third straight annual profit, Flexman is charged with keeping Tasman's books in the black and helping to keep the Tasman Makos a viable on-field entity.
Originally from the South Auckland township of Mangatawhiri, the former New Zealand Rugby Foundation boss has taken over from Peter Barr who retired in December after four years in Tasman's hot seat. And notwithstanding his hands-on experience at Counties, 37-year-old Flexman is a qualified lawyer, has an extensive administrative background and has worked for various law firms both in New Zealand and overseas, specialising in employment law and civil litigation.
His five years at the helm of the New Zealand Rugby Foundation also has him well versed in the critical area of financial management. The foundation was set up originally to help players who have suffered a life-changing injury playing rugby, providing financial assistance to players and their families. Financial management has been a key area of its brief.
So is he qualified to handle Tasman's ongoing and sometimes vexing business concerns? You bet.
"I am motivated by the extent of the challenge, to be honest, which is a big part of it," says Flexman.
"Really, for me, I guess, it's an advancement, or a step forward in a career that I really want to pursue and that's sports administration-management.
"Five or six years ago, when I was eight years down the track practising law, I got to a point where I just felt this profession's not necessarily for me for the rest of my career.
"I was at a bit of a crossroads, I guess you'd say, but I'm very passionate about sport; that's something that gets me excited, particularly rugby – it's literally a lifelong passion. So it was an opportunity to use the skills set I'd developed in the legal profession, and you do realise when you get out of it that you do develop some excellent skills."
Nelson Bays' amalgamation with Marlborough to form Tasman in December 2005 has always intrigued Flexman. Now he's excited about the prospect of becoming an integral part of the union's growth.
"I'd have to say, in terms of Tasman, I've always liked the story of an emerging union. The Tasman alliance was only formed in 2005, so it's relatively new and I've always felt as a brand that it's strong and that they've punched above their weight as a team.
"They've never had any rock stars but always performed pretty well and also the region itself, which I knew a little bit, was very attractive too as a lifestyle option. I think there's plenty of opportunity within the union, so we've at least got that solidity around their balance sheet now to hopefully be able to propel ourselves forward."
He appreciates the historic rivalry between Nelson Bays and Marlborough and that some friction still exists regarding the amalgamation. While confident that the situation has eased considerably, it's something he insists he will continue to address.
"I think it is absolutely moving in the right direction. I think some of those people that you might categorise as a little bit negative or a little bit anti the whole Tasman thing might be moving out of some of those influential positions now and if we're replacing them with people that are ultimately on Tasman's aspirations and goals, then that's got to be good.
"There's still some antagonism there which, from a Tasman perspective, is counterproductive undoubtedly. But, at the same time, I'm not naive enough to think I'm going to solve it tomorrow.
"It's there and it's about how we can best work around those issues. It's really about changing a mindset from one of where we're focused on our sub-unions [to where] we're now focused on Tasman.
"It's a pretty simple equation. If we want to retain top flight rugby in the top of the South Island, we have to get on with it."
He says the alternative, with both Nelson Bays and Marlborough playing in the Heartland competition, doesn't bear thinking about.
"If that's the scenario, then your breeding ground of talent, which your Nelson College and your Marlborough Boys' College are, say goodbye to your top tier players because they just won't be in the region."
Flexman also acknowledges that Barr's disciplined fiscal approach has provided Tasman with a blueprint that he intends to maintain. It's been critical to keeping the union afloat in a tough economic environment.
He also acknowledges the fine line between fiscal responsibility and maintaining a competitive ITM Cup team.
"For all those, I guess what you'd call second tier unions, it's hellishly tough, what with the economic environment being what it is, [and] it's not necessarily going to get easier any time soon.
"So the focus has to be, which it has been latterly here, on really staunch and strict control of your cost base and your spending. It's tough, so you do come into an environment where every dollar counts."
If that means occasionally banging heads, then he is prepared to do that, although he believes that communication will generally resolve most issues. It's all about respect.
"What I've experienced in my administrative roles on boards in the past is that really, a quick fix mentality is not the way to go," he says.
"In other words, `let's buy a competitive team, we'll win more than we lose and the rest will take care of itself', to be honest, it's flawed, it doesn't happen that way."
Flexman has been working closely already with coaches Kieran Keane and Leon MacDonald regarding player recruitment, addressing concerns around bulking up the tight five in a bid to give the side a more physical forward presence.
"We've got the profile of a couple of guys in the front row and lock that we think we need to recruit.
"What I would say is that we've got some positive leads and some balls in the air that I'm pretty confident will come to fruition, so I think we can plug those holes and if we do that, I think we'll always put together a backline that's going to be good enough to score tries."
Essentially, Flexman supports the attacking style that has become the Tasman Makos' trademark and expects to announce some key player signings "within the next month". That could also involve the return of some players previously connected with the side.
He is also comfortable with Keane's secondary role as assistant coach of the Highlanders Super 15 rugby team which, although not ideal, also has its benefits.
"In an ideal world, it'd probably be different, but we also recognise that we have a very high calibre coach in Kieran and unless we were prepared to make a concession around Super Rugby, we probably wouldn't be able to retain him. I have huge regard and respect for the guy's rugby knowledge and nous, that's unquestioned, and I guess the obvious downside is that Kieran won't come into our environment until quite late in the piece, depending on how the Highlanders progress through the tournament.
"But at the same time, we feel that we have in place a high performance structure that compensates for the fact that he's not around and Leon's stepping up in terms of his seniority and responsibilities which I think is great with an eye to the future.
"I'm absolutely satisfied that he [Keane] is thinking a lot about our playing roster and the upside, as an example, of having him in the Highlanders environment is he's also potentially getting leads on some players that may be able to come into the region."
Flexman makes no apologies for frequently acknowledging the part played by Barr in expertly administering a difficult and often unenviable job.
"The reality is, Peter had done a very good job with a fiscally prudent approach which this union absolutely needed or I suspect it wouldn't be here now.
"I think you drop your guard at your peril in this game at the moment."