New Zealand's nightmare scenario
August 11, 2009
Dan Carter's return to action with Canterbury has boosted the flagging All Blacks © Getty Images
Confidence in New Zealand rugby is very fragile at the moment. The solution to All Black woes, exposed in the tests against France and Italy and exploited by the Springboks on the South African leg of the Tri Nations? Bring back Dan Carter.
To be fair to the talismanic No.10, he greeted the news of his recall to All Black ranks by downplaying his possible impact. But was anybody listening? I am not so sure, and if it is the case that Carter is being handed an Andrew Flintoff-like mantle to cover wider structural and morale issues then New Zealand rugby really is in trouble.
The break currently being enjoyed by the All Blacks, in between the assignments in Cape Town and Sydney, has also coincided with the start of the Air New Zealand Cup. Once again, public perceptions of and responses to this much-loved domestic battleground are in stark contrast to the diet of Super Rugby which so dominates the rugby calendar, and which will in due course be expanded to incorporate 15 franchises.
Because their Whangarei homeground's turf was deemed unplayable by the NZRU due to bad weather, Northland were obliged to play their first home game, a round two fixture last Thursday evening, at Albany Stadium, the home of North Harbour on Auckland's north shore. This same venue annually hosts one of the Blues' home super rugby fixtures (the Auckland, North Harbour and Northland unions comprising the catchment area for the Blues' franchise).
A four-hour round trip on a wet and windy winter's evening, on a working day, was made by sufficient Northland supporters to make it seem like a home game and they were rewarded with an impressive 29-16 victory over Taranaki. You could probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of Northland supporters who would have troubled themselves to make the same journey, in the summer/autumn, to support the Blues against the Reds or the Sharks or even the Crusaders.
The first two rounds of the Air New Zealand Cup have also seen defeats for Canterbury, Waikato, Otago and Auckland (twice). Indeed, after two rounds, Auckland sit at the bottom of the 14 team first division and while these are early days and nobody expects this to be the situation come play-off time, everybody outside the super franchise centres - Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin - is fervently hoping for this outcome.
In its recently-published restructuring plans, intended for implementation in 2010, the NZRU has proposed a first /second division structure of ten/six teams respectively, with automatic relegation and promotion providing a bridge between the two. However, before they can get to that position the current first division has to lose four teams and this is where the politics becomes very interesting and very messy.
Putting aside the issue of who stays and who goes, to be decided on the basis of financial viability, player numbers as well as on-field success, the implementation of the relegation/promotion regulations seems fraught with danger for the NZRU. Because, having invested so much money and time in creating a professional Super Rugby structure around the five centres and the five franchises, they cannot allow any of the main unions around which this structure is built to fail at the domestic level.
It is not inconceivable, for example, to imagine circumstances in which the Otago union, already under huge pressure as the Highlanders Super franchise, finds itself in a relegation spot.
It is not too fanciful to suggest that the NZRU would not allow this to happen, because apologists for the pitiful state of Auckland rugby are already dismissing suggestions that the Mark Anscombe-coached side should be cut adrift and left to compete on a level playing field.
Failure to allow this to happen, or the artificial propping up of those unions who do not measure up, would blow the game apart and accelerate the process by which a meaningful provincial rugby competition in New Zealand disappears.
This is a nightmare scenario, of course, but the NZRU is well advanced in its strategy of driving the game away from the grassroots and into a narrow but extended calendar of Super Rugby. The New Zealand rugby public will continue to vote with its feet and the concerns about lack of strength in depth amongst the All Blacks will intensify.
The shrinkage of the player base makes this inevitable and this is the issue that has to be addressed to ensure the long-term health of All Black rugby. Dan Carter may well provide that much-needed morale boost in Sydney next week but the mid-term/ long-term issues are much more serious than that.
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