NZRL LIFE MEMBER REON EDWARDS: ON THE IRL BOARD AND IN THE GRASSROOTS TRENCHES
Dyed-in-the-wool Cantabrian Reon Edwards received the highest of honours at last weekend’s New Zealand Rugby League AGM, becoming just the seventh person in the past seven years to receive an NZRL life membership.
Edwards joined recent Canterbury stalwarts such as John Coffey (2018) and Frank Endacott (2020) in having the honour bestowed upon them from the national body.
“It’s a huge privilege, having been involved in the game for 42 years now,” Edwards says.
“You don’t set out to be recognised for a life membership, you just follow your passion and I’ve been fortunate to find myself in some senior roles where I’ve been able to influence – hopefully in a positive way – the game. It’s been a great journey so far.”
Edwards first pulled on a pair of boots for Marist-Western Suburbs as a five-year-old, later played for Eastern Suburbs, won a CRL premiership with Halswell in 2003 and represented Canterbury Māori .
After calling time on his playing career, Edwards’ path in sports administration began with a place on the Marist-Western Suburbs committee. From there, he served on the Southern Zone board from 2009-13 and the CRL board from 2012-15 – the latter during a vital and transformative period for the organisation.
“Where I was with my professional career, and I had some governance roles outside of rugby league as well, I enjoyed the administration but also the governance roles in business,” he explains.
“And I enjoy the business of sport – not necessarily just rugby league, it really interests me. We all have similar challenges, whether it’s rugby league, netball or union.
“Helping Canterbury Rugby League with the 100-year celebrations (in 2012), that was a big event. It was a transitional period, because we moved from being run like a committee, to my role being to create some more governance within the structure of Canterbury Rugby League.
“We then embarked on a three-year strategic plan, and that was the first time a strategic plan had been implemented in the game here in Canterbury. From there we worked on building some good capability around the board table and it’s continued to grow from there. We’ve had some good people come in after me, quality directors, which is really good to see.”
— NZ Rugby League (@NZRL_Kiwis) July 29, 2015
Edwards accepted a position on the New Zealand Rugby League board in 2015. At the time, the Kiwis were Four Nations champions before carving out a drought-breaking Anzac Test triumph and the Kiwi Ferns – only recently coming under the NZRL umbrella – were receiving unprecedented, well overdue exposure ahead of the 2017 men’s and women’s World Cups, of which New Zealand was installed as a co-host.
Edwards took over as chair of the NZRL board in September 2017 – just prior to the World Cup. While the Kiwi Ferns performed superbly in reaching the final, the Kiwis’ jarring quarter-final exit ensured a demanding period for the national administration.
— NZ Rugby League (@NZRL_Kiwis) August 31, 2017
“The game was in a bit of a state of crisis following the World Cup,” Edwards recalls.
“It was a stressful, challenging time for the game. Coming into the role as the new chair, it was a massive challenge – but hugely rewarding as well.
“I’m proud of the fact that we got the organisation through that tough time, we reset the organisation with the review, reset the management and coaching staff, and now NZRL have got some excellent leadership in place.
“It was probably what the game needed at the time and we were able to take advantage of that opportunity to turn things around. Now we’re in a great position financially and have set a platform for a stronger game. Not just at high-performance Kiwi and Kiwi Ferns level, but we’ve got the bones of a really strong structure for the game moving forward.
“We’ve still got challenges at a grassroots level, but I think we’ve got the right people and the right foundations to build on.”
At a media conference in Auckland today NZRL Board Chair Reon Edwards, together with Deputy Chair and Acting CEO Hugh Martyn, welcomed the Review Panel findings, describing the process as having been robust and enlightening – https://t.co/81pQNHieyW
— NZ Rugby League (@NZRL_Kiwis) March 16, 2018
Edwards became a director on the International Rugby League board in 2018 – and he remains New Zealand’s representative on that board after stepping down from his NZRL posts last year.
With international rugby league essentially put on ice for two seasons and the England-hosted 2021 RLWC controversially postponed by 12 months by COVID-19, Edwards again finds himself in a key administrative role at a crucial juncture.
According to Edwards, the years ahead are about making up for lost time – both for the game’s historical inaction and the circumstances forced upon the code by the global pandemic more recently. He has not illusions about the scope of the job ahead but is positive about the direction world rugby league is headed.
“International Rugby League is reliant on one source of income: the Rugby League World Cup. We need to see the game generate new revenue streams and channels,” he stresses.
“It’s about trying to build a good four-year program so we can go and promote that international content to sponsors, so then it can become a sustainable business with multiple revenue streams. We can put that back into the game and the international body becomes a solid support mechanism for the emerging nations.
“The first Rugby League World Cup was in 1954 and the first rugby union World Cup was in 1987, so we’ve missed a whole lot of opportunities during that time. And in the last World Cup in 2017 we made a profit of $7 million – the rugby union World Cup (in 2019) made over $300 million.
There are just 100 days until RLWC2021 kicks off! 🏉
The countdown until the world's best stars battle it out at the biggest, best and most inclusive Rugby League World Cup is on!
— Rugby League World Cup 2021 (@RLWC2021) July 7, 2022
“Unfortunately, our game has had some opportunities over the years that we haven’t taken advantage of. That’s not to say we can’t grow the international game, but we’re very much at a ground zero level at the moment and there’s a lot of work to do in that space.
“In terms of my role on the international board, it’s just been assisting the audit and risk committee and making sure first and foremost getting through the COVID period, keeping the international body afloat and getting us through tot the next World Cup. Then we’ve got some certainty for revenue and income for the next four years and we can start to build an international calendar and commercialise that.”
While Edwards is a heartbeat away from the important decisions being made at rugby league’s highest levels, the mark of the humble 47-year-old’s passion and unwavering diligence for the game he loves can be summed up by his ongoing commitment to grassroots footy.
Retiring as NZRL chair has freed up some time – which Edwards has put into lending Papanui Tigers a hand.
“When I came off the (NZRL) board last year I said to (former CRL CEO) Duane (Fyfe), ‘tell me who’s in need of some help there because I want to jump in and help one of the clubs – not necessarily one I’ve had an involvement with previously – but I think I’ve got a bit to offer’.
“So Duane suggested I reached out to Papanui – I went to Papanui High School, I’ve got a bit of a connection there growing up on that side of town – and it’s been a lot of fun engaging with the committee at the club, and help guide them along on a new journey.
“Just resetting their governance practices, creating a bit more structure around policies and procedures. We’ve set a three-year plan and they’re on a good journey. It’s their centenary year too, which is exciting.
Canterbury Rugby League CEO Malcolm Humm paid tribute to Edwards in the wake of his life membership recognition.
“Reon’s contribution to the sport over many years, at club, regional, national and international level has been enormous,” Humm says.
“And even now, as he sits on the International Rugby League board, he’s in the trenches with a local club. He’s really helping the Tigers out as far as showing them what success could look like over the next few years, working with them on how they can implement a plan.
“He’s been bloody great for our sport and still is. I congratulate him for the work he’s done over many years – but he is still doing that work. He’s just so passionate about the sport and just wants to help.”