Simon Porter is probably the most influential person in New Zealand rugby you wouldn’t recognise if you bumped into at the pub. And, make no mistake, that’s just the way he likes it.
It’s Porter’s job to help his clients become the faces of their sports, and the more unobtrusively he goes about it, the better as far as he’s concerned. But as chief executive of New Zealand’s dominant player agency, Auckland-based Halo Sport, a client list that reads like a Who’s Who of Kiwi rugby and someone who presides over deals worth millions and millions every year, there can be no denying his influence.
Today he’s breaking his golden rule to meet with a writer and talk about himself and his business. It’s not publicity he usually craves – the best agents adopt the lowest public profiles – but his company has rebranded after being acquired by a Japanese conglomerate, and he has a message to deliver: the name may have the changed, but the service certainly hasn’t.
Porter heads an organisation which used to be Global Sports Management, then became Essentially, then CSM, and are now Halo, a wholly owned subsidiary of Japanese advertising and public relations giant Dentsu. They remain part of the CSM global network, but have a dedicated Kiwi-Japan setup with 16 staff in New Zealand and six in Japan.
* Dame Valerie heads to Halo
* Tew to quit as changes brew
* NZ Rugby will consider offshore candidates
* Hansen: World is at Tew’s feet
Halo are the dominant player in New Zealand’s player agency market (though their scope is broadening with Dame Valerie Adams their most recent non-rugby addition), representing, among current All Blacks, the Barrett brothers, Kieran Read, Ben Smith, Sam Whitelock, Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara, Codie Taylor and Ryan Crotty. They also look after Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and Julian Savea.
Porter has plenty of help. Fellow directors Lou Thompson (executive chairman) and the highly respected Warren Alcock have senior roles, while Dean Hegan, Greg Dyer, Kent Hale, Henry Bates and Dale Cook keep things cooking with the array of sporting talent, young and not so spritely, that come through their doors.
But Porter is the driving force of the organisation. He studied law in Dunedin and played at a decent enough level – three years for North Otago, one for Counties Manukau as a No 10 good enough to make the New Zealand Divisional XV – before heading off on his OE and putting that degree to use. He also married a Black Fern, two-time World Cup-winner Hannah Myers, and they have two children in Poppy, 8, and Toby, 6.
Nothing changes with Halo, says the boss, other than an even stronger synergy with Japan as the new owners look to leverage legacy opportunities out of the World Cup and next year’s Olympics. “We are still very much a New Zealand company and ultimately we want the best for New Zealand rugby,” he adds. “What that looks like in individual instances, the individuals make that decision anyway. But our business relies on New Zealand rugby being strong.”
Halo stitched up the deal that ultimately allowed Sam Whitelock to remain an All Black. Not coincidentally it has a strong Japan element to it, which Porter notes is neither the first nor likely last to go down that track.
But the field is shifting all the time. There is now a US league offering opportunities for provincial-level players and Perth-based Global Rapid Rugby is digging for a niche in the international game.
Second-tier Euro competitions such as Spain, Portugal and Italy are now also more enticing than previous because of the tighter budgets at Mitre 10 Cup level. And, of course, France, the UK and Japan provide ever stronger pulls at the top level.
Even league is in Halo’s “sights” – they have three agents now dual-accredited with the NRL – because they understand “young men want options” and the Kiwi schools network has become a major recruitment pool for the XIII-a-side code.
“The one thing that never changes is the immense nursery that is New Zealand rugby,” adds Porter. “The talent keeps getting pumped out from our schools system across the country. These kids are coming out of school now looking like athletes and their understanding of rugby through analysis, better coaching and playing in great systems has altered massively.”
Despite mid-level Kiwi players jumping ship earlier and earlier to head overseas, New Zealand Rugby remains remarkably successful at keeping the pointy end of its talent on these shores. Porter credits the black jersey as a big part of that, but adds: “Young guys increasingly are turning down money that for them is quite eye-watering … because of this sense that ‘I want to get better and this is where I can best develop as a player’. It’s almost doing your apprenticeship, and you either reap the rewards through national selection or you head overseas as a more complete player and take that money then.”
One thing Porter has learned is that everyone has their own circumstances, their own driving forces. “Tony Woodcock’s OE was going to the Highlanders. He didn’t want to go overseas, but he’d been doing the same thing in Auckland for years, so for him it was living in a small city, in a house in town, where his wife Tracey could walk to the café, and that sated their desire for change.
“A lot of them just want to freshen up. It’s tough what they do, they’re analysed and criticised every week, and it can be mentally draining. Sometimes a change of scenery is all they need.”
Porter is either a bad guy or a hero, depending on what side of the fence you sit, or which deal you are talking about. He’s kept top players in New Zealand through stitching together the right contracts for their purposes – think Ben Smith or, most recently, Sam Whitelock – and he’s also lured them offshore with offers they couldn’t refuse.
He’s comfortable with either perception because “I know the process we go through with our guys … we’re information gatherers, and we put it all in front of them, make sure they’re thinking about all the right things, and then I’m strong on the fact that the player has to own his decision”.
The toughest place to be for a player, says Porter, is on “the bubble” either between provincial and Super Rugby, Super and the All Blacks, or even between being a national squad member or starter. “It gives you uncertainty, you can’t plan trips because everything is selection based. If guys sit on that bubble for a while, at some point they’re going to say ‘my pathway is blocked and I just want to go and play’. That’s often when they come to us.”
The international game remains at an uncertain juncture. World Rugby has its plan; and maybe the Six Nations have their own. Sanzaar are clearly hedging their bets. Porter believes it’s an exciting crossroads.
“These are savvy equity fund managers who are betting on rugby. It’s not doom and gloom, but the No 1 issue in the game for me is around what parts of the game are they willing to bet on? The danger is the gap between the Haves and Have Nots continues to grow … if people are genuine about test rugby being the showpiece, then self-interest needs to be put aside and we have to help the Pacific Islands and others by creating sustainable commercial models that helps them develop”.
Another hot topic is the age that talent is being tapped on the shoulder. Stuff heard of one 15-year-old Auckland first XV player reportedly being offered a four-year deal by an NRL club. Porter conceded that was probably accurate, and contrasted with rugby’s more responsible approach.
Professional or semi-professional rugby organisations are generally recruiting around the end of schooling; but league dives in much earlier, sometimes at 14. The clubs are setting the markets, but he urges parents to seek advice from those versed in the industry before they sign any deals.
Porter has experience in this area, having been involved in Etene Nanai-Seturo’s release from his Warriors contract. He didn’t want to speak specifically on that but admitted it created an invidious situation when “these guys are making decisions when they’re effectively kids. Everyone makes decisions for different reasons, but the last year of school is a much more natural time because every young person has to make a decision then”.
The reality is that every Auckland 1A game – arguably the best rugby talent pool in the world – is being watched by agents and scouts. Porter’s own organisation has two or three people across the schools scene, “because that is where you recruit from”.
The women’s game is also a growth area Porter is fascinated by, and not just because he’s married to a Black Fern.
“The next step has to be a domestic professional competition because it can’t continue to be ignored. I have a daughter who’s been around the Black Ferns her whole life, and when you ask her what she wants be, she says a Black Fern. You want her to have the same opportunities as boys do.”
It gets deep when you ask Porter about the toughest aspects of what he does. Believe it or not, it’s not getting a blockbusting, multi-layered deal, such as Whitelock’s, over the line.
“The toughest thing, and what keeps you awake at night, is when you’ve got clients you’ve been with for a while, you know their wives and kids, and you’re struggling to find them a job. You feel a real sense of responsibility to come up with something to keep their mortgage being played.
“It’s all well and good doing a mega-deal for a Dan Carter at Racing, but when you’ve been scrapping away at a much lower level and get a deal that makes a significant difference in a life, those are the most memorable. If we’re sitting round having a beer on a Friday, often those are the ones you reflect on most warmly.”
Big paydays, it turns out, come in many forms.