Concerns mounting in New Zealand
Huw Turner
May 16, 2011
Adam Thomson is one of a number of injury concerns for the All Black selectors © Getty Images

Rugby World Cup ticket sales, economic recession, Super Rugby attendance figures, All Black injury woes, earthquake devastation…Each of these issues is a story in itself, but taken as a whole, it is clear that New Zealand's rugby authorities have cause for concern.

Despite the positive spin put on the latest World Cup ticket sales by chief executive Martin Snedden, it is not surprising that so many tickets remain unsold. The Christchurch earthquakes of September 2010 and February 2011 have devastated that city and denied one of the world's great rugby hotspots the opportunity to participate in the coming sporting jamboree.

More importantly, the quakes and the continuing aftershocks have delivered a massive blow to the wider New Zealand economy at a time when the global downturn is beginning to significantly affect average New Zealanders, the very people whose purchasing power at the rugby turnstiles is critical to the eventual success of this World Cup.

On Thursday, the New Zealand government delivers its budget and it is widely expected to squeeze the population even further. Many families are struggling to provide the basics and there are few dollars left over for World Cup luxuries.

These very same people are the ones who have also been expected to support the ever-expanding Super Rugby competition. With a few exceptions, it's easy to see why so many of the games fail to generate any real anticipation. As has been pointed out by numerous commentators, the distances involved do not allow for travelling support to be a factor, so there is a sterility typical of professional sport and its obsessions with franchises.

The Blues up against the Crusaders, the Highlanders playing the Hurricanes and the local derbies, for example, do attract much more attention, but there is increasing pressure for a style of competition that more closely resembles those of the other Trans-Tasman codes, league and netball. The models here seem much more economically sustainable and attractive to the punters.

The Australian NRL is enriched by the presence of the Warriors, based in Auckland, and the growing number of New Zealand league players who command spots in the other teams. The Australia/New Zealand international rivalry has never been keener, with the Kiwis currently having bragging rights as world champions.

This coming weekend sees the grand final of the Trans-Tasman netball tournament, with the Brisbane-based side hosting the one from Auckland. The intensity generated in both codes feeds off the relative geographical, cultural and historic links between both countries. In the world of SANZAR this intensity is dissipated and the hybrid lumbers along, with only the dispiriting prospect of it becoming more of a monster in 2012. The New Zealand sporting public is willing and able to get behind Trans-Tasman sporting rivalries, but the link with South African rugby is based on the financial prerogatives of business boardrooms elsewhere.

"The link with South African rugby is based on the financial prerogatives of business boardrooms elsewhere."

None of these wider issues will be of any concern to All Black coaches Graham Henry, Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen as Super Rugby moves towards its conclusion and they edge nearer to the serious business of securing that World Cup for New Zealand. But they will be concerned about the injury price that is currently being paid by a large group of players with World Cup ambitions and expectations.

Sonny Bill Williams' weekend injury in South Africa is the latest and most high-profile but the Crusaders have other casualties whose welfare will be concerning Henry. Israel Dagg, Andy Ellis, Ben Franks, Brad Thorn and Sam Whitelock, each with serious All Black prospects, will be out of action for between four to nine weeks.

At the Highlanders, the resurgent form of flanker Adam Thomson has made him one of the season's standouts, but a rib injury will keep him sidelined for a month. Along with Daniel Braid he would have been identified as possible cover for skipper Richie McCaw, but the Blues' opensider is himself inconvenienced by a neck injury, which will see him miss the rest of the tournament. Highlanders' fly-half Colin Slade has seen his season blighted by two broken jaw injuries at precisely the time he was about to stage a challenge as back-up to Dan Carter.

At the Hurricanes, backs Conrad Smith and Cory Jane would both be World Cup squad certainties but both will sit out the next month. In addition to Braid, the Blues have lost blindside flanker Jerome Kaino and prop Tony Woodcock for a couple of weeks and a month, respectively. Both are world class players and All Black starters, so their fitness will be monitored with particular concern. Among the backs. Isaia Toeava was at last showing the consistency required of him before being hit with a hip injury.

Injures currently account for an entire All Black pack and the best part of a backline. There are plenty of worries here, unless the enforced lay-off works to provide players with a breather before the serious stuff in September and October.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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