CRL CEO HUMM REFLECTS ON FIRST-YEAR PROGRESS
Canterbury Rugby League CEO Malcolm Humm is reflecting on one year at the helm of the organisation – a milestone that has rolled around very quickly after a fascinating, rewarding and at-times hectic 12 months in the job.
“The main appeal of joining CRL was the challenge it presented to me,” Humm says.
“It’s certainly lived up to that, but I’m proud of what our team – in conjunction with the rugby league community – has achieved in the past year and excited about the opportunities to make further progress that lie ahead.”
Christchurch-bred Humm was a Halswell junior and a lightweight winger/fullback who featured in the club’s 1985, ’87 and ’88 premier grand final victories. His association with the game locally continued when he was on his former Hornets coach Phil Prescott’s Canterbury Bulls staff in the early-2000s as strength and conditioning coach, a stint that included National Premiership success.
After spending time in Melbourne and completing a BPhEd and an MBA, Humm worked with Olympic and Paralympic teams between 2000 and 2006. From there, he worked for the New Zealand Academy of Sport (now High-Performance Sport New Zealand) as a Performance Consultant and subsequently transitioned to the High-Performance Director position with Paralympics New Zealand, leading three Paralympic Games campaigns.
RETURNING TO RUGBY LEAGUE ROOTS
Based in Christchurch throughout his Paralympics New Zealand tenure and weary from a decade commuting to Auckland and spending several months a year abroad, Humm joined Netball Mainland as General Manager – Performance in December 2019…just months before grassroots sport, and the world at large, was tipped on its head.
“By April 2020 we were in the grips of COVID, by May I was having liquidation discussions with our sponsors,” Humm explains.
“I went out on my own and was contracted by Sport Canterbury to support several sports organisations with their strategic planning and structural processes.
“Then the opportunity came up with Canterbury Rugby League in the first half of 2022. As I mentioned, I’m a person that likes a challenge. If it was a sport that had its shop all in order and was going really well, it wouldn’t have been for me. But I heard, and could see, that support was needed.”
Through his own experiences in sports administration through the pandemic, Humm was acutely aware of, and sympathetic to, the obstacles and challenges confronting the game in Canterbury.
“I was highly aware Canterbury Rugby League was coming off an extremely tough period due to COVID. A good example of that is there was a new strategic plan designed for implementation in 2020 – and we all know what happened at the start of 2020.
“So although the new plan was there, it never got activated – and that’s obviously no one’s fault, it’s the way the world was. Having been working in the sporting world myself at that time, you’re trying to survive day-to-day, understanding what the COVID rules meant for sport. You were wanting to retain members, but for various reasons – whether cultural, religious or personal views on vaccinations, for example – sports were losing people.
“I was mindful that I was coming into an environment that hadn’t been normal for more than two years due to extraordinary external factors, but some educated direction was needed, and I felt that was something I could provide.”
Humm pinpointed rugby league’s strong community and a supportive CRL board as key foundations to build the game’s ongoing resurgence upon.
Meanwhile, his arrival in the middle of the 2022 season – while a frenetic time to take the reins – allowed him to get the lay of the land without the pressure of making immediate change.
“I could just watch, learn, listen and get around our stakeholders – understand what’s been going well and what we needed to improve,” Humm says.
“Having that time, then the summer break, and working on the strategic plan with the utilisation of that information, the on-time boarding time was optimal in retrospect.”
KEY ACHIEVEMENTS SO FAR
Humm rates making Ngā Puna Wai the permanent headquarters for Canterbury Rugby League’s staff, the development and early implementation of a new strategic plan, and a streamlined focus on referee advocacy as the foremost achievements of the past 12 months.
“Ngā Puna Wai was billed as the home of Canterbury Rugby League…but there was no one home day to day. So, we worked with Sport Canterbury and Christchurch City Council, who were both really supportive of getting us in there. We’re there now and we’ve got an identity.
“We’ve also now got a Board structure that is fit for purpose. We’ve got a strategic plan; when I came in we didn’t have one – and that’s to no one else’s discredit, again I’m very mindful of the circumstances of the previous couple of years – but we needed a new plan.
“CRL consulted with a wide set of stakeholders and the strategic plan we developed is now our roadmap for the future, so we can work with our clubs, and everyone knows where we’re headed together.
“And importantly, we’ve looked at how we can better support referees and match officials, how we can ensure they’re treated like people. That’s a pretty big box we’ve ticked off and we’ve certainly recruited and retained some really good referees.”
CHALLENGES AND PRIORITIES
Certainly not resting on any laurels from the previous year’s progress, Humm believes there’s still ground to make up and new standards to attain.
Retaining juniors and attracting new players is a primary challenge for all codes – and one of Canterbury’s foremost priorities.
“Like all sport, we tend to be losing our youth players – whether that’s to other sports, the arts, to gaming or whatever,” Humm explains
“But I’m not sure we’ve done enough to keep those kids in our sport. That’s a key area we’re looking at now: how do we excite them to play our sport? Our strategy clearly demonstrates that we need to be providing safe, enjoyable environments and a positive experience – so how do we work with our clubs to do that?
“The other challenge is getting an aligned rugby league network in Canterbury where we can all work together: The clubs can work together, CRL can work with the coaches and referees, everyone can cooperate for the good of the sport rather than our own needs.
“We also need a club structure that is fit for purpose. We want to ensure that our clubs are sustainable and that they’re able to do what they need to do to support their membership. A big focus of our strategy for the future is around how we support our clubs.”
The other critical piece of Canterbury Rugby League’s puzzle in the period ahead – fundamental to growth and player retention – is around coaching.
“I feel that it’s an area in a number of sports that gets left behind, and we’ve got a lot of work to do around how we support our coaches,” Humm asserts.
“If we want our tamariki and rangatahi to stay in our sport, coaching plays arguably the most crucial role – so we need to support our coaches in their development.”
Canterbury Rugby League’s strategic plan encompasses a large and extremely important non-rugby league element, too.
Humm explains that the need for this came through strongly in the consultation process in terms of how CRL can support our community outside of the game.
“We’re working with He Waka Tapu to develop a short workshop program, based around topics like suicide prevention, family violence, alcohol and drugs, and health and wellbeing – things that are common to us all but with a focus on how we can support members of our rugby league community in those areas.
“We’re also working with Water Safety New Zealand on an educational and practical program. Māori and Pasifika are overrepresented in preventable drownings; 75 percent of our fraternity are from those communities.
“We believe through these educational programs with He Waka Tapu and Water Safety New Zealand, we’ve got the ability to save lives. That’s a vital focus for us at the moment – it’s not only about the game itself.”
CANTERBURY IN THE NEW ZEALAND RUGBY LEAGUE LANDSCAPE
Humm has firm views on Canterbury’s place in the New Zealand Rugby League spectrum, particularly the disconnect of the country’s second-biggest province not having a singular presence in national competitions outside of the Bulls and the Canterbury women’s senior teams.
CRL currently falls under Southern Zone Rugby League’s umbrella, with the region’s juniors representing South Island Scorpions in national competitions, rather than in the red and black jersey. It’s a situation Humm, with the CRL Board’s backing, is pushing to change.
“The zonal model is an interesting concept to me, but given how strong Canterbury Rugby League is, not having that direct line of sight to New Zealand Rugby League and not having Canterbury youth teams at national competitions, I felt – and I know our Board has the same view – is that we’ve lost our identity.
“So, we’ve been working with New Zealand Rugby League around that. There’s no guarantees, but I believe in the future we’ll be reverting to a scenario where Canterbury will be a standalone district that will have teams representing the province at national youth competitions again.
“Meanwhile, women’s rugby league is exploding in popularity here and in Australia, and we’re very aware of the need to capitalise on that and provide opportunities in Canterbury.
“We’ve got young girls playing at junior level in mixed grades, youth girls’ teams and women’s club and representative teams – but we can do a lot better.
“We need a dedicated focus on women’s game and we’re working more prominently with schools to help bolster our female participation, but there’s also a need for more female coaches and female referees as well. We’ve got a big job to do across that area.”
Canterbury Rugby League has a tight-knit fulltime staff of four: CEO Humm, Rochelle Macpherson (Office Manager), Jordan Chand (Competition & Operations Manager) and Jamie Lester (Director of Football).
MacPherson’s experience and institutional knowledge courtesy of 30 years at Canterbury Rugby League was hugely beneficial to Humm’s transition. Chand had only been with CRL for a few months when Humm arrived and Lester was in early-2023.
The off-season provided an opportunity to reorganise CRL’s industrious staff’s roles, to harness their dedication and expertise more efficiently.
“We needed to get our strategic plan in place first to understand what our roles needed to look like for us to deliver on that plan,” Humm says.
“Once that was signed off, a new structure was developed and we had an internal restructure with Rochelle and Jordan, redefining their responsibilities, and then adding Jamie, who has been great since coming on-board for the sport in terms of his rugby league knowledge.”
The NRL pre-season trial in Christchurch in March between Melbourne Storm and the Warriors was a huge win for Canterbury Rugby League and its community.
On top of having elite rugby league played in our city again for the first time in almost four years, it provided an opportunity for our coaches to participate in coaching clinics with the Warriors and an absorbing Q&A session with legendary Storm coach Craig Bellamy and his staff.
“We see those opportunities as very significant and we have to thank ChristchurchNZ for that – they got the Storm here and supported our approach to getting Craig to give up his time to speak with our local coaches,” Humm reflects.
“Partnerships is another major element of our strategic plan and we’re in really positive conversations with an NRL club right now to see how we can partner with them. Part of that would be around supporting our coaches and their development. We’re in the midst of planning a coach practicum piece, while some of our club players are already part of this NRL franchise’s system, so we’re looking forward to building on that. Watch this space.”
Humm is vociferous in his appreciation for the assistance local administrative and sporting bodies have provided, particularly in facilitating Canterbury Rugby League’s all-inclusive shift to Ngā Puna Wai.
“Moving out to Ngā Puna Wai has been great for a number of reasons. We have outstanding rugby league fields, the facilities are first-class – I’m told on a regular basis the fields are world-class in terms of sand-based surfaces – and we’ve got groundspeople onsite 24/7.
“That couldn’t have come about without the vision of Christchurch City Council and the support of Sport Canterbury. They’ve been invaluable partners for our progress in developing those facilities.”
Canterbury Rugby League’s primary function is to deliver grassroots sport, which many grant funders and charities are willing to support to ensure New Zealanders are keeping active and healthy.
But securing more backing for semi-professional sport – namely the Canterbury women’s team and the Canterbury Bulls, areas CRL doesn’t traditionally get a lot of support – remains very challenging.
“We’re always looking for commercial partnerships to support those teams and get them through their representative campaigns,” Humm implores.
“What we know this year is there is two National Premierships – men’s and women’s – that will be aligned and broadcast live on Sky Sports. We feel we’ve got a really cool product to put out there and one that will be hugely beneficial to any prospective sponsors.”
But Humm is quick to emphasise the generosity and commitment of Canterbury Rugby League’s existing sponsors, both new and long-standing.
“Where we’ve got to with our referees program wouldn’t have been possible without the support of NZ MEP Fabrications and Darren Littlewood’s input – that’s been very significant for us to have them on-board. They’ve helped us enormously with how we can recruit and develop our referees.
“Whitehead Plumbing & Gas have been long-term partners, supporting our Junior Rugby League program since 2019. Once again, it allows us to provide that group of young players with quality playing fields and the delivery of competitions.
“Those companies are highly valued partners and we’re very grateful for their support and enthusiasm for rugby league.”