Rugby losing its grip on rank and file
Huw Turner
November 9, 2009
Canterbury celebrate winning the Air New Zealand Cup, Canterbury v Wellington, Air New Zealand Cup Final, AMI Stadium, Christchurch, New Zealand, November 7, 20009
Canterbury celebrate their Air New Zealand Cup victory over Wellington in Christchurch © Getty Images

The mantra trotted out by commentators and players alike, past and present, that New Zealanders are as passionate about their national sport has always seemed odd to me. It is also beginning to assume an increasingly hollow ring. Just because something is repeated over and over and over does not make it so.

Whilst the All Blacks have been away in Tokyo and Cardiff, the Air New Zealand Cup, a very tepid version of what used to be the NPC, attempted to come to the boil. On successive weekends the climax of the domestic season, the supposed shop window of the domestic game, delivered occasions of such little consequence that the pre-match highlight of the game on Saturday evening was the delivery to the AMI Stadium, by helicopter, of the Air New Zealand Cup. Wow!

Rugby followers in the nation's capital, Wellington, and the epicentre of its provincial rugby strength, Christchurch, were so passionate about their respective sides' participation in the business end of the tournament that they stayed away in their thousands.

The Westpac Stadium is not, by international standards, a big stadium but it will be packed out for next weekend's football World Cup qualifier against Bahrain. For the semi-final visit of Southland, the previous weekend's conquerors of Canterbury and latest holders of the Ranfurly Shield, it was embarrassingly empty, what atmosphere there was inside the stadium provided by the visitors. The AMI Stadium in Christchurch, the one that used to be Jade Stadium but which is really Lancaster Park, is nearing completion as a 2011 Rugby World Cup venue and therefore only currently offers about 50% capacity. For the semi-final against Hawke's Bay even the TV commentators whinged about the lack of support and empty stands in the hope of drumming up some enthusiasm for the following weekend's final.

All to no avail. Much of the pre-final TV coverage concentrated on the likelihood of a mere 10,000 turning out on the night and in the event this more or less turned out to be the case. The NZRU have some serious issues to address here as they seek to sort out the shambles that constitutes the New Zealand rugby season and the decision it has to make, come December, about the precise composition of the top flight of the Air New Zealand Cup - is it to be 14 teams or 10 teams?

"For New Zealanders, what was once unthinkable is not only becoming possible but is also being articulated - rugby is losing its hold on the psyche of the sporting public."

What the non-events of the knock out phase of the Air New Zealand Cup over the past two weeks underline is the dangerous fracturing in the game in New Zealand. Wellingtonians and Cantabrians are voting with their feet, I believe, because they are not interested in paying out good money to see their sides shorn of their top players, their Super Rugby stars, their All Blacks. They will keep their dollars until Super Rugby rolls around again. Both cities are powerful franchise centres.

The rank and file outside the five franchise centres, feeling themselves increasingly marginalised in the development of the professional game, have supported the Air New Zealand Cup, but will not be persuaded to turn up for Super Rugby.

The petition circulated by the Save Our Teams organisation is due for delivery to the NZRU next Friday, Friday 13th, Black Friday. It will be disappointed that the petition has currently attracted only just over 30,000 signatures, not exactly an outpouring of national angst. Closer scrutiny reveals that the bulk of the signatories come from outside the Super Rugby franchise centres, that those inside the centres have ignored it. Because, I guess, they can afford to.

For New Zealanders, what was once unthinkable is not only becoming possible but is also being articulated - Rugby is losing its hold on the psyche of the sporting public and less and less care a fig about that.

Passion? What passion?


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