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Rugby's chance to regain its rightful place

Lindsay Knight28/8/07

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 mid-1980s.

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 appropriate time.

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 has seen.

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 | Comment on this article

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Lindsay Knight

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