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Super 15 puts NZ rugby at risk
Huw Turner
May 21, 2009
New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive Steve Tew talks to the media, All Blacks press conference following the retirement of Jerry Collins, NZRU headquarters, Wellington, New Zealand, May 27, 2008
Steve Tew of the NZRFU has welcomed Super Rugby's expansion © Getty Images
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During a week when three of New Zealand's Super 14 franchises have been preparing for semi-finals weekend - the Crusaders in Pretoria to face the Bulls and the Chiefs and Hurricanes squaring off in Hamilton - the news has been dominated by the unveiling of proposals to expand the competition to 15 sides in 2011.

Super 15, to put it bluntly, spells disaster for provincial rugby in New Zealand. South African commercial clout has prevailed as the the Currie Cup will continue to live on alongside Super Rugby.

The spectre of a fifth Australian franchise is fast becoming a reality, rugby in the lucky country likely to be expanded into Melbourne, even though it is widely recognised that the introduction of the fourth Australian franchise in Perth - the Western Force - stretched resources beyond coping point.

God help us. A season of franchise rugby stretching from the end of February until August, when the same players will swap jerseys and run around in the Tri Nations. NZRFU boss Steve Tew has claimed that a season expanded from 14 to 24 weeks, or from 91 to 120 games, will not bore television audiences.

This is what has become of the great New Zealand rugby watching public, destined to become a television audience and nothing more. It has finally been accepted that the only meaningful rugby, the only rugby where you can expect to see the best New Zealanders still playing in New Zealand, will be concentrated in Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. Rural unions have been abandoned and it is my expectation that in the not too distant future live audiences, as well as TV audiences, will decline still further and eventually wither away. It will be interesting to see what happens with match attendence figures come the World Cup.

Whangarei, two hours north of Auckland, has been awarded two of Tonga's pool matches in 2011 and Okara Park, the Northland provincial headquarters, is currently a building site as it is developed in readiness for 2011. It will then become a sporting white elephant because by the time the tournament has come and gone, the competition in which the local side plays will attract nobody.

As I write, provincial representatives are meeting with the NZRFU in Wellington in an attempt to rescue whatever they can from the once mighty NPC, for many years the world's greatest nursery of rugby talent. Emasculated and rebranded as the Air New Zealand Cup, who knows what horrors lie in store as the emasculation continues. No wonder the delegates looked so dispirited on the Thursday evening news bulletins. They surely know their time is up.

At a time when the game in New Zealand has been shamelessly asset stripped, with most of its top talent plying its trade overseas and its premier domestic competition subjected to the commercial imperatives of the global money men, the remarkable strength in depth of New Zealand rugby has shone through the latter stages of Super 14 2009.

Todd Blackadder and his fellow Crusaders, to say nothing of Ian McGeechan and his assembled Lions, would have trembled at the sight of the Sharks and the Bulls slugging it out last weekend. They played with the sort of pace, power, aggression and skill which will stretch the Crusaders and surely cripple the Lions. But the young Crusaders are in with a chance as there has been no other side able to match their Super consistency and ruggedness over the years. If they get up over the Bulls then I believe the final will be in Wellington, because I expect the Hurricanes to reverse the result of two weeks ago in Hamilton.

At the beginning of the season I tipped the Crusaders to prevail again. I am not going to change my mind at this stage.

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