Plans to help FRU

Fiji Rugby Union CEO John O'Connor (left) and chairman Francis Kean. Picture: FT FILE

The new Fiji Rugby Union board came in with a vision to lift the image of the Fiji Rugby Union not only domestically, but internationally.

This was how FRU chairman Francis Kean saw the changes that were implemented when he took over the role in 2015.

“We invested in a consultant to assist us in formulating a meaningful strategic plan for FRU encapsulating this vision,” Kean said.

This is the first of a three-part series between the chairman of the Fiji Rugby Union, Commander Francis Kean and FRU media officer, VASHNEEL PRASAD.

1. We understand that you were involved with Suva Rugby Union, as chairman and later president, prior to the move to FRU. What was the key driver in this decision?

Yes, I started with Suva Rugby Union as its chairman in 2010 after the famous failed Suva Rugby Union International 7s tournament. This 7s tournament was a wonderful concept by the executives of SRU at the time however poor financial management of the tournament resulted in major financial woes to the union. We started with zero in 2010 and I left SRU in 2015 with the union being resurrected competitively (three years finallist in the Skipper Cup and winning the Farebrother Sullivan Trophy in 2012) and financially stable. After two FRU AGMs, I witnessed the disunity plus the misaligned intentions of the council then, was disheartening. It was a privilege to confide in one of Fiji Rugby Union’s life-members at the time, the late master Paula Cavu, who I consulted on several occasion in this endeavour to unite rugby administrators in this country. At our first meeting at his home in Domain, he laughed off this goal of bringing rugby together, the West and the East unions. This was his exact words, Fiji Rugby has also been divided along the West and the East provinces. Despite this jittery encounter, master Cavu continued to encourage and drive me towards achieving this goal. It was also a privilege to consult with another FRU life member, Barrie Sweetman, who provided sound guidance on the FRU constitution and an insight into Fiji Rugby Unions’ history, especially the purchase of our current white building (Rugby House). I am greatly indebted to this two giants of rugby administration in our country, who provided me the drive and the zeal to continue this work of unification. All this work started in 2010 while I was chairman of Suva Rugby Union. I still remember being whacked with big bowls of kava whenever I visited the late Turaga Tui Madudu, Ratu Isikeli Tasere at Nayawa Village in Sigatoka. Ratu Tasere was the President of Nadroga Union at the time and a leading voice for the western unions. I also visited the executives of Nadi Rugby Union on several occasions to develop a rapport and share with them the need to unite Fiji Rugby. Basically, pressing home the message, that Fiji rugby will never be successful until we the administrators of the sport are united. The old adage, “brown water sips from the top”. I am very grateful to master Meli Tora and master Joeli Bulu for their warm reception, despite always living empty handed but with a belly full of kava. Next stop used to be with my good friend, Jo Satala, president of the Lautoka Rugby Union. Of all places, I had to present my sevusevu on the roadside near his house in Waiyavi. This gave me a good indication of where Lautoka stood. Funny, he came begging Suva Rugby Union in 2011 when Lautoka Rugby Union was in some financial strive. All this financial support to our sister rugby city came to naught as my friend Jo Turuva always sidestepped me at the FRU AGM. Today whenever I see Jo, I shout out to him, “liumuri”. Next stop was Tavua and Vatukoula. The reception from the top end of the western unions was always welcoming however they always leaned towards where Nadroga and Nadi sided when it came to the FRU AGM. This never once dented my desire to unite the administrators of the provincial rugby union and pursue a break through with the western unions. It came about in the 2015 AGM and I am forever thankful to all the union chairmans and presidents, that we now have a board that represents the collective voice of all unions in the FRU Council. We were
now over the first hurdle, however the many hurdles ahead required commitment, hard and smart work
to see through the dream of uniting the provincial rugby unions in Fiji. I am happy to report the success
of this goal. My only wish was to have the late master Cavu present (master Cavu as a life member
never missed any FRU AGM or SGM) however, I am sure he will be smiling down from heaven on this
stupendous achievement by the FRU Council.

2. What was the state of Fiji Rugby Union in 2015 when you took over the reign as chairman?

In my view Rugby House was an entity in isolation and without a sense of direction. The team at FRU
were wonderful people however were poorly led.

3. What was the financial situation at FRU in 2015?

We were not in a good position financially in 2014 apart from financial losses in the previous three years. We had qualified audited opinions for several years prior to 2015. Major issues which resulted in the qualification of accounts included the FRU Lottery, lack of tax compliance, FNPF and lack of proper
accounting of revenue and in kind. Further, the union was living off an overdraft facility from pay cheque to pay cheque. This was one of the immediate concerns of the board and was promptly rectified by implementing sound financial reporting systems and good governance practices. Basically, we tightened up the loose ends and cut down significantly on unnecessary wastage. Sadly, we had to part with a few staff which gave the board the opportunity to recruit the right people for FRU. The valuable contributions particularly by directors Bobby Naimawi and Daniel Whippy plus the other directors was significant.
This financial transformation brought a sigh of relief to the trustees of FRU. In 2014, we had an annual financial portfolio of FJ$8.6 million, which has now risen to FJ$23.957 million as at the end of 2019. This is a milestone increase of approximately 300 per cent however it also increased our responsibility to ensure transparency and accountability in the utilisation of such funds. We are pleased to report that
since 2015 we have had successive unqualifi ed annual fi nancial reports.  This successive positive financial reports was a trigger to attracting much needed sponsorship dollars plus enhancing our relationship with World Rugby.

4. What was the mood of the relationship between FRU and its council members?

The relationship between FRU and its council members was ‘unhealthy’. The board saw this as a key priority area to address as one of its strategies in this transformation journey. Our intent was a
collective approach to bring about partnerships, unity and a common goal to serve the rugby players that
make up this wonderful game of rugby union. Without the players there is no rugby union.  This collective approach wasa tactic to the breaking down of provincial barriers, West vs East unions mentality which was prevalent in Fiji Rugby. Today the Fiji Rugby Union council speaks as one voice. Our FRU national teams play as one team. The current FRU board is an outcome of this strategy. Similarly, to strengthen this partnership we had to develop and drive communications with all our  Unions. Our communication strategy was central to engaging and keeping the unions and the council members informed of all the operational activities and developments at Rugby House. We commend CEO John O’Connor for championing this bboard initiative, which has greatly improved FRU’s visibility to our unions and
council members.

5. The transformation at FRU has made significant headway, what are some of the key strategies that the board implemented to bring about these changes that we witness today?

The transformation journey at FRU started during the board’s first meeting with the team at Rugby
House. A key message conveyed to the team on that day, was the dire need to improve on our customer
service to all FRU sponsors, unions, council members, World Rugby, Government, stakeholders and all
our other customers. The desire was to ensure that all our partners could call Rugby House, their rugby home. Another challenge was harmonising the various arms at FRU, operations, development, HPU, finance and HR. This challenge was easily resolved through our steadfastness and support from World Rugby. The recruitment of our current CEO itself was a challenge as World  Rugby disagreed to the appointment.We however forged ahead trusting that this was the right  decision and choice for Fiji Rugby. In hindsight, World Rugby regretted their decision considering the positive impact and professional nous that O’Connor has brought to Fiji Rugby. For the information of many, all previous CEO’s of FRU had 70 per cent of their salary paid by World Rugby. The board saw fit to change this by ensuring that FRU was fully responsible for the 100 per cent payment of CEO’s salary. This was a game changer in the operations of Fiji Rugby and similarly earned the respect of World Rugby despite our
meagre finances, at the time this decision was made. We survived then and have continued until today,
recruiting more professionals like a general manager commercial, a manager sponsorship and marketing,
manager broadcast, Manager legal, manager HR and manager finance including other important junior staff. These investments in human resources capability was critical to  embracing this era of professional
rugby, something that Fiji Rugbywas lagging in. These recruitments  including that of our current CEO
John O’Connor plus the other managerial appointments was strategic and they have all contributed
immensely to where Fiji Rugby is today. The board came in with  a vision to lift the image of the Fiji
Rugby Union not only domestically but internationally. We invested in a  consultant to assist us in formulatinga meaningful strategic plan for Fiji Rugby encapsulating this vision. Today our vision is to be “A Leader in World Rugby”. This Strategic Plan has been our compass for FRU over the last 5 years.

6. What was/is the relationship between Fiji Rugby Union and World Rugby in 2015 and today?

During our first meeting with World Rugby general manger Oceania then, William Glenwright and his
team in 2015, I specifically stated that they needed to trust this new board. Our journey forward from
this meeting although challenging, frustrating at times and frank has been very fruitful with positive
outcomes for Fiji Rugby. Our relationship today with World Rugby has never been better.

Stay tuned for Part Two, next week our Fiji rugby pathway and alignment an envy of many global rugby playing nations.

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