New Zealand rugby heading for civil war
Huw Turner
October 4, 2009
Tasman's Afeleki Pelenise (L) and Joseph Wheeler celebrate victory over North Harbour, North Harbour v Tasman, Air New Zealand Cup, North Harbour Stadium, August 7, 2009
Tasman's on-field success is not likely to save them from the Air New Zealand Cup cull © Getty Images

The natives are getting restless in New Zealand. They need to, because the confirmation by New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) chief executive Steve Tew that in 2010 we will see a 10-team first division in the Air New Zealand Cup effectively spells the beginning of the end for provincial rugby in New Zealand.

Throughout 2009, off-field politics have overshadowed the on-field fortunes of Super Rugby franchises and the provincial unions, but the latest announcement, which is thought to involve the demotion of the Counties- Manukau, Northland, Manawatu and Tasman unions has finally brought about the mobilisation of men and women in the street.

With the likes of legendary All Black Colin Meads lending his support to those who fear for the long term viability of rugby in New Zealand, the fight is about to get serious and will probably end in court litigation.

This rugby civil war will inevitably alienate the average fan and conceivably have repercussions for the success of the 2011 World Cup. The organisers of the latter are already so nervous about their ability to sell World Cup tickets that they have started to float the idea that for the latter stages, the semi-finals and final itself, it might be possible to purchase tickets in instalments.

The NZRU's argument is financial, of course. They cannot afford to finance a 14-team Air New Zealand Cup first division while struggling with the voracious demands of expanding Super Rugby. But the latter has less and less supporters and, according to some reports, is unsustainable in the long term.

So the 10-team first division will inevitably consist of the five unions where the Super Rugby franchises are based: Auckland, Canterbury, Wellington, Waikato and Otago, plus five others. No matter that provincial rugby in Auckland and Otago is in tatters and that one of the 2009 success stories, Tasman, due for the drop at the end of the season, lie in fourth place at the end of the tenth round of tournament play. We could be confronted by the grotesque spectacle of a side reaching the semi-finals, only to be relegated.

Of the other seemingly doomed unions, Manawatu have enjoyed a productive 2009 and count Auckland among their victims; Counties-Manukau, since being finalists in 1997 in the old NPC, have struggled but their disappearance would have serious implications for rugby in the south Auckland area; Northland, as inconsistent as ever, are building a new stadium in advance of the World Cup which could become a white elephant.

Organised opposition to the dismembering of provincial rugby in New Zealand has appeared over the horizon in the shape of David Kirk-Jones and his Save our Teams organisation.

Kirk -Jones is a businessman who believes that the danger to provincial rugby is so great that a stand has to be made here and now, otherwise it will simply be too late and the great heritage of New Zealand rugby will no longer be available to future generations.

"I was in Pukekohe on Friday night for the Counties v Canterbury game," he said. "The response to our petition was staggering. Out of the three thousand crowd, two thousand signed up there and then. I had grown men crying on my shoulders, so upset were they at the prospect of the demise of Counties and the destruction of provincial rugby. Every single union's supporters club is behind us and we have been told by Sky television that ratings for the Air New Zealand Cup are through the roof."

Kirk-Jones has clear aims for his organisation and a concrete timetable for his petition. "I don't have a quarrel with Steve Tew, I think he is doing a good job on behalf of the NZRU," he said. "But does the board really understand what it is doing? We are aiming to present our petition to the Board on 13th/14th November, to tell them that they have misread the circumstances that surround this decision to reduce the size of the first division.

"The board members are elected by people around New Zealand and they need to be accountable for their decisions. We are currently in the first stage of our campaign, organising the petition and gaining as much support for it as possible. The second stage will involve a period of two or three days during which we will lobby local councillors and members of parliament to get behind their local unions. The pressure is already coming on the NZRU so this has to be maintained. Then the third stage is the individual lobbying of the board members."

Clearly, a great deal is at stake here. The fear has to be that the New Zealand public will end up with a diet of meaningless franchise rugby, a diet it will simply not accept.


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