As the All Blacks fly out this week for the
World Cup in France those with a sense of
New Zealand rugby history will be struck by
the parallels between the state of the game
now and as it was in the early and
We can only hope those uncanny similarities
will be a happy omen for the All Blacks'
prospects in the World Cup for, as it did in
1987, a New Zealand success in the global
tournament could not come at a more
This week, too, there is looming a match
with many of the ingredients which helped
make the 1985 Canterbury-Auckland Ranfurly
Shield clash such a classic, recalled by
anyone who was at Lancaster Park that day as
the most memorable provincial game he or she
Canterbury will challenge Waikato for the
shield in Hamilton on Saturday night in what
will be the highlight of the Air New Zealand
Cup competition not just for this weekend,
but perhaps for the entire season.
Waikato, in lifting the shield by a record
margin from North Harbour, did New Zealand
rugby and the shield itself a major favour.
The passion, the commitment of both the team
and its supporters, plus the skill of
players like Liam Messam and Stephen Donald,
both destined to be All Blacks, surely
answered those who argue that shield rugby
has no future.
Those jeremiahs need to be reminded yet
again that people of their ilk have been
writing shield obituaries ever since some
civic dignitary nearly 100 years ago
suggested to a provincial side that after
winning the shield the next thing that
should be done would be to toss it into Cook
Strait on the way home.
In Canterbury, Waikato will have an opponent
worthy of its steel. Despite being without a
number of stars, it has been in good form
recently, sharing the Air NZ Cup table lead
with Auckland with an unbeaten record.
And as everyone knows, Canterbury's record
and history with the shield is only
marginally inferior to Auckland's.
Who knows? Perhaps even some of the major
media outlets, such as television news, will
have it leading their sports bulletins,
instead of being behind league and soccer
competitions in Australia and Britain.
Until now rugby's critics have had a field
day for much of this year. Much of the
criticism, admittedly, has been justified.
It has hardly been a vintage season.
Deliberately diluted teams in both the Super
14 and the Air NZ Cup, even for All Blacks'
tests, have strained public tolerance.
So too have confusing laws and
over-refereeing, though in this area there
have been exceptions, one being Kelvin
Deaker's excellent, unobtrusive handling of
last weekend's shield game. Rugby owes it to
itself to address all these issues.
It would be wrong, though, for anyone to
conclude that this is New Zealand rugby's
first period of depression. There have been
many downers in the past, and there was a
notable one in 1981-85, mainly because of
the controversy over contacts with South
Africa and its apartheid policy.
This was accompanied by a severe drop-off of
crowds, a reminder to those who mistakenly
assume rugby has always enjoyed sell-out
attendances as of right.
The crowds for the two 1985 tests against
England at Lancaster and Athletic Parks were
respectively 25,000 and 20,000. Only 24,000
were at the legendary Baby Blacks' win over
France in 1986 and only 20,000 at the 1987
World Cup opener at Eden Park.
But much needed tonics came with the 1985
shield epic and the 1987 World Cup success.
Starting with the late 1980s, New Zealand
rugby embarked on a popularity rise which
has lasted up until the last few years.
The enthusiasm with which sections of the
media have seized upon the successes of
other football codes in the past few weeks
has also been a reminder that something
similar happened in the early to mid 80s.
The All Whites' qualifying for the 1981
World Cup had many predicting soccer would
become New Zealand's main winter sport and
also in the mid-80s league for a time was
flavour of the month.
True sporting fans of course, including the
rugby fraternity, will not begrudge
recognition for the recent feats of the
Warriors or the new Wellington-based soccer
franchise, the Phoenix.
But from their own experiences, and ups and
downs, both those codes will be well aware
of how fleeting and fragile the support of
the ever increasing numbers of fair weather
friends, both among the media and in the
public, can be.
Should, as is to be fervently hoped, the All
Blacks repeat the triumph of 20 years ago
rugby, too, should take care to appreciate
the difference between those who genuinely
love the game and those who quickly board
the nearest band-wagon.
LINDSAY KNIGHT |
RugbyHeaven | Tuesday, 28 August 2007 |
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