category: rugby news

The commercial threat to rugby's substance

Lindsay Knight 21/8/07

Something, it appears, we all have to get used to with the commercialisation of top rugby is that many of the game's institutions and icons will come under increasing threat, even those like the Ranfurly Shield and some of the country's most celebrated stadia.

As sponsorship deals change, so too do the names of some grand old grounds. Wellington's Athletic Park is no more, though no one probably mourns that too much. Others like Christchuch's Lancaster Park and Whangarei's Okara Park have had a variety of names, to a point where the media and the average punter can only be confused.

In an upcoming refurbishment of Napier's McLean Park it is understood the old McKenzie stand will disappear, thus loosening a link to one of Hawke's Bay rugby's biggest legends, Norman McKenzie, the man primarily responsible for the province's glorious shield era of the 20s. How much longer, with the 2011 World Cup ahead and huge costs involved, will Eden Park retain its name?

So, given the alacrity with which rugby's bean counters will trade the game's soul, no one should assume that the format of our national provincial championship, now the Air New Zealand Cup, will last forever.

For judging by some of the modest attendances at many of this year's ANZC matches, notably Dunedin, New Plymouth and for Counties-Manukau at Mt Smart, the costs of sustaining even a semi professional competition must be straining the already stretched finances of the NZRU.

It can be only wondered, yet again, whether the right format has been found. Inevitably, with the ANZC being expanded to 14 teams, some of the rugby has been mediocre, though there has been some foul, freakish weather. The Northland-Tasman match, indeed, was reminiscent of the celebrated 1975 "water polo" test.

But anomalies still exist in the format even if there has been an improvement on some of last year's unsatisfactory aspects.

Having just 10 qualifying matches before the playoffs means there is every likelihood some unions who have had traditional rivalries won't meet this year. One of these casualties may be Auckland-North Harbour's annual Battle of the Bridge.

In time will we see the scenario some in high places may prefer? That would involve encouraging a further rationalisation of smaller unions, along the lines of Tasman, so that there could be a two-tiered provincial competition, with nine sides in each division but with a strict automatic promotion-relegation being applied.

After four rounds in this year's ANZC it would be stretching things to say that the new 14-team competition has narrowed the gaps between the country's elite unions and the rest. Even without many All Blacks, Auckland and Canterbury, have again looked a class above. Others who might be expected to claim playoff spots, Otago, Taranaki and North Harbour, in particular, have been extremely disappointing.

But there have been positives. One has been Manawatu finally gaining its first win in top provincial competition since its relegation to the old NPC second division in 1988. Another has been the mighty feat of Hawke's Bay in winning away against Southland and upsetting Wellington and North Harbour to have three wins after the first four rounds and be third on the table after Auckland and Canterbury.

So far the Magpies are providing the strongest argument in favour of the restructured competition, particularly as the Bay was a union which suffered from what was in place through the 1990s and up until 2005.

And as it does every season, the provincial competition is throwing up plenty of fresh talent, nobody shining more brightly than the 21-year old Canterbury first five eighths Stephen Brett, who after the heights he reached last weekend against Wellington is being spoken of in the same hushed tones Daniel Carter evoked three or four years.

It is extraordinary the class first fives who seem to abound in Canterbury, going back to Bruce Watt in the 1960s, followed by Wayne Cottrell, Doug Bruce, Wayne Smith, Stephen Bachop, Andrew Mehrtens, Carter and now Brett.

Can Carter and Brett both be accommodated in Canterbury and the Crusaders next year? Probably with ease, with one or the other conceivably going to second five where Aaron Mauger's exit leaves a hole. And it's not as if All Blacks are seen much in provincial sides in the modern era. Incredibly, in six seasons Carter has played only 21 provincial games.

The other icon to be tested this weekend is the shield, which has not caused the "fever" many may have hoped for on Auckland's North Shore. But perhaps that will come in trying to resist a tough challenger, with a strong shield heritage, in Waikato.

Who knows? A heroic, successful Harbour defence might lead onto a significant and a creation of the sort of legends, which Buck Shelford apart, the Harbour union desperately lacks.

LINDSAY KNIGHT | RugbyHeaven | Tuesday, 21 August 2007 | Comment on this article

Lindsay Knight

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