Winning is all that matters - whatever it takes

You can't get away with much on a rugby field these days. It used to be different, and some argued that whatever was good enough for rugby was good enough for politics

Of the week’s signpost activities – the kinds of things that give order and sequence to a world that is sometimes devoid of both, Radio New Zealand Mediawatch is high on my list. The voices are familiar but cut through that Sunday morning somnolence with intelligent critique and commentary. It is a nice way to engage with Sunday.

Imagine then my disquiet when, on September 13 the voice was not a Sunday voice and the response more a sense of being wired than one of mindfulness. It was Matthew Hooton, with a voice like no other, and he was in bed with me on a Sunday morning. Perhaps this was the opposite of the rapture, and a sense of how I was going to pay the price for a life less than well-lived?

It was a Mediawatch piece reflecting on the kind of speculation that was occurring (and one can guarantee that there is more to come) regarding the future of the All Black captain Richie McCaw. Mediawatch may well have used the phrase ’over the top’ to characterise Hooton’s comments on McCaw’s post-rugby future – anything was possible in the public or private spheres. I would add parenthetically that Hooton is a Machiavellian creature, by which I do not mean to suggest a degree of malevolence, but a commitment to ‘the plan’. Hooton doesn’t extemporise, and that’s worth reflecting on.

I haven’t met Richie McCaw and have no sense of his ambitions or of his preferences regarding the flavour of ice-cream or politics. I know him as others do, and I like what I see. I wonder whether someone who clearly takes immense pleasure in chasing thermals in a glider would make the transition to the politics of the board-room (or the caucus), but that's for another time.

The Mediawatch piece reminded me of a personal experience with the other All Black Captain to hold aloft the Rugby World Cup – David Kirk.

There is a well-respected Wellington consultancy that acts as a conduit between the policy and political community, and the business community by organising regular briefings. I know some of the principals and I know them to be honourable people. Each year this organisation holds a CEOs retreat in Queenstown. It’s an opportunity for intellectual stretch and blue-skies thinking. Individuals who have experience in and a perspective on politics and policy are invited to lead sessions.

In 2004 I was just over a year out of Helen Clark’s office, having formerly worked for Steve Maharey. I’d worked closely with Heather Simpson in Clark’s office and – initially at least – the mission had been to start a programme of work anticipating wicked and complex issues and framing them in a social democratic way.

So I was invited to the CEO’s retreat. My companions would include the Leader of the Australian Labor Party Mark Latham, National Secretary of the EPMU Andrew Little and the Economics Editor of The Economist – a woman whose name escapes me but who opened proceedings on the Friday night with a trenchant criticism of the Clark Government, characterising it as one of few that was attempting to ‘turn the clock back’.

There were really impressive public and private sector CEOs present, and I learned a great deal. Some were clearly of a political persuasion that was far from my own, but that provided the basis for some pleasant and productive exchanges. The chair of proceedings was, as I recall, a senior partner with one of the major Auckland accountancy firms. His politics were crystal clear: Clark had to go, and the restoration of good governance was to be obtained by the election of a Brash-led government.

These events – I am told – typically feature a Saturday evening dinner and a guest speaker, who this time was a successful New Zealand business leader in his own right. But he was asked to speak as a former All Black Captain – the very one who had held the William Webb Ellis Trophy aloft at Eden Park. I love my Rugby – I am from Canterbury and we are good at it (although my own endeavours were particularly modest). What is relevant though in the context of those endeavours is that the ruby we played was – not to put too fine a point on it – a violent game. My reflexes were particularly slow, a fact often attested to by my face.

Things have changed, and for the better.

David Kirk had a message he wanted to pass on to the assembled. He spoke of an important Bledisloe Cup match and of an impressive Australian lock by the name of Steve Cutler. And he talked of pre-game strategizing that identified Cutler as a threat. He commented that there was only one thing to be done in such a situation – Cutler had to be taken out.

This was more than a lazy McCaw foot trip; it was a pre-determined plan.

I’ve looked back at the dates of tests and I’ve looked at who was injured and replaced and who won. The Kirk plan – although it would be wrong to visit sole responsibility on this Oxford Educated physician – worked. Cutler was ‘taken out’. And Kirk's explicit message to those who were assembled was that they should – to cite a phrase that has transcended rugby and the real world – ‘harden up’. When it came to important things, he said, like ridding the country of an unwelcome government whatever needed to be done – whether or not it was within the law and spirit of ‘the game’ – should be done.

His message was unequivocal but the chair of proceedings in thanking him noted the imperative of ‘getting in behind Brash’.

Today we have Television Match Officials, and one imagines that it would be difficult, but by no means impossible, to ‘take someone out’ in the way Cutler was that day.

Today we reflect on Dirty Politics. But when you consider the imperative and not a book title  – that you do whatever is necessary to win – it's nothing new.

I don’t know what Ritchie McCaw will do after politics. But whatever it is I hope it manifests the qualities that have made him a great captain: leadership, discipline, and – at the end of the day – respect for the other side.