New Zealand bosses have cause for concern
November 3, 2008
Canterbury celebrate their New Zealand Cup final victory over Wellington in a far-from-packed Cake Tin © Getty Images
As I sat down in the comfort of my armchair to watch the Air New Zealand Cup (NPC) final between Wellington and Canterbury, I was reminded of a conversation when I first arrived in New Zealand in February 1997.
Super 12 rugby was about to embark on its second season and a great deal of excitement and anticipation surrounded that. As I was to discover later, this would co-exist alongside NPC rugby for a few years yet, before franchise-itis and franchise-speak tore the guts out of New Zealand provincial rugby and the tribal nature which made an Auckland v Canterbury or Waikato v Otago confrontation such a compelling spectacle and which ensured the health of New Zealand and All Black rugby.
I was astonished to be told, by a Cantabrian who had played a bit of provincial rugby with the likes of Grizz Wylie, that professional rugby would kill rugby in New Zealand. At the time I thought he was bonkers, but watching non-spectacle final in the half empty Westpac Stadium and reflecting on what must have been one of the most disheartening domestic New Zealand seasons in the professional era, I conclude that he was astonishingly prescient.
Coming on the back of a disastrous World Cup campaign, in preparation for which the New Zealand rugby public had been treated with utter contempt, the New Zealand rugby diaspora picked up pace as players, experienced All Blacks as well as provincial journeymen, abandoned ship as quickly as investors have recently been divesting themselves of bank shares. The accelerating disenchantment of the rugby public was further demonstrated by empty stadia in places like Dunedin and Hamilton and even the Test match in Christchurch failed to sell out.
At least Graham Henry and his employers had started to get the message : that for the price of their extortionate Sky tv subscriptions and/or Test match tickets the punters would quite like to be treated to the best All Black side that could be assembled. But I suspect the damage had been done, that boredom with franchise-based rugby, with which provincial New Zealanders cannot be bothered, had reached critical mass.
The once mighty NPC, truly the world's best provincial championship, the laboratory in which generations of All Blacks had been tested, has been emasculated to such an extent that the New Zealand rugby follower, if he or she is interested in watching the best New Zealand rugby players, may just as well tune into the Rugby Channel (yes, there is a 24 hour rugby channel here) to watch their favourite players turning out for Leinster in the Heineken Cup, or Worcester in the Anglo-Welsh Cup or the Ospreys in the Celtic League.
Flanked by his skipper, the admirable Kieran Read, about to be named an All Black for the first time, and perhaps a future AB skipper, Penney lamented the fact that this was probably the last time Read would turn out for his province.
So rugby followers can expect evermore Super rugby, from which they are increasingly alienated, fewer and fewer provincial appearances by incumbent All Blacks and an accelerating player drain. For the privilege, they can expect to have to contribute to the propping up of this edifice through ever-increasing satellite tv fees, and spectate from afar as the corporate dollar is chased on the back of the All Black brand in Hong Kong and London. Come 2011, the New Zealand rugby public will be expected to set all this aside and faithfully turn out to support the World Cup in all the provincial corners of New Zealand. The single most exciting rugby phenomenon in New Zealand in 2008 has been the progress of the New Zealand Warriors to the semi-final stages of the NRL.
The Warriors, the Auckland-based rugby league side, captured the public imagination like no other side this year. But they play in an Australian competition and are largely staffed by Australian players. Shouldn't the NZRU and the IRB be just a little concerned by the asset-stripping of New Zealand rugby? Because the truth of the matter is that in the long run nobody will gain from all this. European rugby may feel it is on an exciting and exhilarating crest of a wave but what is the point of kiwi journeymen sitting on the bench in Bristol, or Llanelli or Sale?
And just in case you think I have forgotten the All Blacks, the announcement of the squad to tour in November raised much less public and media attention as the United Future Party - currently polling 0.2 % in the opinion polls as we approach the New Zealand general election on November 8.