NZ rugby needs to take a hard look at itself
Huw Turner
April 5, 2008

Scrum's New Zealand correspondent Huw Turner identifies some fundamental problems in New Zealand rugby in his Super 14 mid-season review

With the Highlanders finally winning a game, and the Chiefs thumping the Brumbies in fine style in Canberra, it might seem perverse to begin this feature with the focus on the politics of New Zealand rugby, even the viability of provincial rugby into the not too distant future.

But at Carisbrook on Friday evening one could be forgiven for having one's attention drawn away from the rugby to playing spot-the spectator. As if the missing tens of thousands were merely adding substance to the claims of Justin Marshall, made earlier in the week, and the proposals of the Manawatu and Hawkes Bay unions, made earlier in the day.

Admittedly, the Highlanders' position, at the Super 14 basement, and the visit of the not ever so attractive South African Lions, did not combine to create compelling box office, but the Highlanders find themselves in this position precisely because of the woes identified by the critics of the way Super rugby is structured in New Zealand.

Marshall's refrain, in his Guardian column, was a familiar one, but nonetheless pertinent. Super rugby has become predictable, boring, stale, a turn-off. He was , of course, comparing it to the much more tribal and visceral confrontations that constitute the Heineken Cup.

Letters to the editors of provincial New Zealand newspapers and bar room chatter in small town New Zealand echo Marshall's concerns and certainly reflect the fears which lie behind the thinking of the smaller provincial unions such as Manawatu and Hawkes Bay.

What they have said , in effect, is that unless new life is breathed into Super rugby, and this is going to take some very radical thinking and action , provincial rugby is going to wither away. Their proposals provide such a challenge to the current status quo that they have as much chance of being adopted as I have of playing for the All Blacks.

Automatic entry for the top six unions from each Air New Zealand Cup competition into the subsequent expanded Super rugby competition would no doubt entail all sorts of logistical and contractual problems but it would spice things up and perhaps begin to win back grassroots support. After all, which would you rather support : a franchise or a union with a rugby identity and history ?

Meanwhile, back at the rugby, with most of New Zealand's top rugby talent either overseas or eyeing up the possibilities of pursuing that lucrative route, the performances of the New Zealand franchises has been much as anticipated.

At the Crusaders, the Deans dynasty is in its final stages, but the qualities which so recommended the coach to the Australian Rugby Union have been obvious for all to see. Deans' man-management skills and acute rugby brain mean that players always improve under his tutelage and the Crusaders invariably perform with an intelligent but ruthless efficiency and consistency.

Ali Williams has delivered the test form that he always found so elusive whilst in Auckland, Mose Tuiali'i has added the sort of consistency and dependability that could well bring him back into All Black contention and Stephen Brett and Kieran Read are beginning to fulfil their early promise.

The Blues should really have been more consistent given the resources at their disposal. Nick Evans has continued to endure bad luck with injuries and hasn't delivered the quality of performance that would enable him to challenge for Dan Carter's All Black jersey. But with the latter likely to be out for six weeks there is still time and a wonderful opportunity to impress.

With so much backline talent it seems strange to suggest that the absence of one player on the wing could have had such an impact, but Doug Howlett, still plying his trade in such distinguished fashion in Ireland, has been missed. The forwards can be outmuscled , the second half collapse against the Force at Albany a case in point.

When skipper Nathan Sharpe stepped up the pace in the second half the Blues did not have any answer, the individual talent available through an international front row of Afoa, Mealamu and Woodcock and a back row boasting the likes of Nick Williams and Jerome Kaino not really gelling as a unit. Perhaps the closeness of their last two games, when the Blues only managed to prevail at a very late hour, is indicative of greater pragmatism in their game, a quality which would serve them well in the competition's final stages.

It is all too easy to label the Hurricanes as flaky, especially with such hard-nosed performers as Jerry Collins, Rodney So'oialo, Chris Masoe and Piri Weepu in their ranks. But you do have to wonder about their under-achievement and what a coach like Warren Gatland might have done with such a talented, but enigmatic bunch.

The Chiefs could yet emerge as New Zealand's surprise package. Against the Brumbies they offered irresistible pace throughout their game, combined with a defensive solidity that denied the opposition opportunities to cause danger out wide. Sitiveni Sivivatu is returning to his best form, the searing pace complemented with some deft touches in the offload.

It will be interesting to see whether this is the year back rower Liam Messam breaks through into All Blacks' ranks. Hugely gifted, pacy and athletic, he is possibly under-powered. His dynamism often compensates and he forms a formidable combination with the inconsistent Sione Lauaki. But if the latter ever became the complete package look out!

Aucklander Fetu Vainikolo (not related to Lesley) who made such an impression for Northland in last year's Air New Zealand Cup, has been the Highlanders' star in 2008. With the correct handling it could be an All Black star in time for the 2011 World Cup. Strong, pacy and with a hunger for the ball he has a quality to his play which spectators find exciting. But his likely immediate future highlights the predicament the Highlanders find themselves in and which illustrates some of the issues I raised at the beginning of this article.

Vainikolo seems unlikely to return to Dunedin next year because Auckland will probably snap him up, taking him away from the Northland province in the first instance and the Otago franchise in the second. Resources and power settling in a few strong centres while the periphery withers away. This may happen much quicker than those in authority might care to admit.

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