Air New Zealand Cup
This is Dan Carter country
August 4, 2009
Dan Carter's Canterbury return could be short lived © Getty Images
For some observers the Air New Zealand Cup has served its purpose for the season.
With four teams set to drop out of the premier division at the end of 2009, based on their financial performance, facilities, history and player development records, many have speculated that the identity of the champions is irrelevant - this is a tournament with 10 winners and four losers.
Adding to the feeling that this season is nothing more than a slow death for the 14-team division is the fact that barely an eyelid was fluttered at the scoreline emanating from North Harbour Stadium on Saturday. The home side, last season's 12th placed team, opened their account with a 22-19 win over reigning champions Canterbury.
The reason for the lack of interest? The man wearing No.10 for Canterbury was Dan Carter. The only pertinent information after the game was the state of the All Black fly-half's Achilles. It's fine, by the way.
Carter has already been volunteered for international duty by Canterbury coach Rob Penney, and after New Zealand's directionless, humbling loss to the Springboks in Durban it might not be long before he swaps red and black for All Black.
If, or when, Carter takes his leave then the domestic competition will return to normal service. Because of the length of the international season, provincial appearances by current All Blacks will be at a premium. This is the reality for those sides that will contest the tournament next season, with development playing a massive role.
Colin Slade and Stephen Brett, Canterbury's reserve fly-halves, have been urged by Graham Henry to look elsewhere for game-time given the all-consuming spectre of Carter both with the Crusaders and now Canterbury. The Super 14 draft might be an option for next season, and it would be a brave and humble move for either player to undertake.
Still young, both players need to develop their game by playing, and as much as they may learn from Carter their time is better served learning the craft of being a fly-half rather than spending time on the wing or at fullback as with last season.
With the NZRU guaranteeing four to five home games per side from next season, fans also have a part to play in terms of helping these players. The competition has so much potential to excite in terms of discovering young talent - players that will later become the backbone of Super 14 franchises and also the All Blacks - but if the fans don't get through the turnstiles then it's all for naught.
Fans show their support during Dan Carter's Southbridge return © Getty Images
Auckland's squad, the one that was heaved from one end of McLean Park to the other by Hawke's Bay last weekend, features not a single All Black, past or present. Their selection highlights either a dearth of resources or an admirable long game; only time and their gate receipts will tell which.
In a dichotomy however, the brightest lights may still bypass regional competition. Take for example the young, up and coming Aaron Cruden. The Manawatu pivot, playing his first full season of Air New Zealand Cup rugby after recovering from cancer, has already been mentioned in the same breath as the All Black fly-half jersey.
He lead the U20s to a thrilling World Championship earlier this season, and could well have bypassed provincial competition altogether had Graham Henry been a gambling man. Carter and Cruden represent two ends of an increasingly frustrating spectrum for fans. Cruden could well become a vital and beloved player for Manawatu, but chances of him playing for them again are slim. He may well secure a place on the All Blacks' end-of-season tour, and will likely play his first Super 14 next season. That's the way it goes.
Still, in the brave new world of New Zealand's domestic competition there is no place for sentimentality. Shape up or ship out has been the message, with teams told to contribute on a number of fronts to secure their future at the top level. It won't be fair should Tasman, Northland and the like contest the final and subsequently be relegated, but these are difficult times. Life's not fair.
Huw Baines is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.