Chris Rattue 's Opinion

Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Chris Rattue: Southern man brave enough to say what's on his mind

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Jimmy Cowan. Photo / Greg Bowker
Jimmy Cowan. Photo / Greg Bowker

Three cheers for Jimmy Cowan, who has carried on a fine little tradition of Southland-raised rugby halfbacks who speak their minds.

Cowan has left it late, until the eve of his departure for foreign shores, but better late than never.

Not since Justin Marshall was in his prime, assisted now and then by Tana Umaga, has a rugby player uttered this much worth listening to.

Our players and most coaches struggle to make a whiff of sense beyond dealing with the intricacies of ruck cleanouts and relaying the standard sporting psychobabble which if designed to make them appear bright, has the opposite effect.

So step up Cowan. Shunning the chance to announce "all credit to Steve Tew", he described the six-days-a-week ITM Cup for what it is, a relentless grind that was boring and confusing the public while putting a ridiculous strain on players. Cowan, a tough player, said three and four day turnarounds were just too hard.

In this, he was stating the bleeding obvious, but even that presents an area of danger to anyone tightly or loosely employed by the New Zealand Rugby Union, as TV commentator Murray Mexted found a couple of years ago.

As Muzza might say, the psychic energy isn't with rugby any more. For every stirring Taranaki v Canterbury contest, there is a swag of dross played before empty seats and hearts.

I have no complex answer to the rugby malaise, beyond stating another obvious, that if a culling of teams would improve the situation, the blade should start its sweep at North Harbour. Auckland has enough trouble fielding one decent team these days, let alone two.

What is interesting about the Cowan situation is that it drew Tew, the NZRU chief executive, out of his bunker, and some of his language was revealing.

What on earth has happened to the dear old focus group, I wondered, when Tew turned to the feedback he was getting "from the people I mix with".

My experience as a rugby journalist left the impression that people Tew mixed with might be inclined to tell him what they thought he wanted to hear. As both off-the-record conversations with rugby luminaries and the Mexted debacle indicated, merely questioning the NZRU is not regarded as an overly profitable exercise.

From his extensive study, Tew felt that people liked the "convenience" of watching rugby midweek, as if sport was on a par with doing the grocery shopping.

This is why none of rugby's competitions really work. They are all a convenience, not for the public, but the alliance between the unions and broadcasters.

No one tried to design a ripping good competition, and then tried to make it work. Professional rugby started off as a last-ditch campaign to ward off an invader, and has never got ahead of the game. The game itself has become bogged down, often, in technical rulings and inadequate skills for the torrid task.

Tew's assertion that the ITM Cup promotion relegation system "retained interest" is a load of old cobblers. Hardly anyone gives a stuff about it, and thanks to the constant format changes, hardly anyone even knows how it works. The good people of Napier or wherever do not break down in tears when their teams drop from the glorious premiership into the terrors of the championship division.

Super 15 rugby is also a contrived competition, designed to get the maximum dollar out of the broadcaster. A lot of people struggle to remember who won it from year to year. Even the World Cup has been a contrivance, where the IRB treated teams such as the Pacific Island countries with contempt, in order to satisfy the most affluent audiences and - probably - protect the old guard's win prospects.

New Zealand rugby might consider if it is time for Tew to bid farewell, if only on the outside punt that there is a better way. I mean that with only a little disrespect towards him, because even his critics must acknowledge that the NZRU faces a tricky landscape.

But Tew is no genius, and rugby needs one. His own thinking sounds institutionalised by the institution he largely created. The echo chamber can only get louder. He has been in charge, or almost in charge, for a long time and the lack of a buzz to the national game, combined with poor financial performances, should receive far more scrutiny than occurs.

His assertion that poor results equal poor crowds in some provinces, that only winners are grinners, is defeatist. His claim that a lack of preparation time would actually help players is laughable, because - as Cowan pointed out - those players are too banged up to be better. Tew even dared to blame the weather - one thing that even the NZRU can't try to control - for patchy ITM Cup attendances.

These represented tired responses from an all-powerful national body that lacks vision, fresh thinking and energy.

Coming from where he does, Cowan knows about harsh winters. He's off to England, where soccer and rugby crowds brave a cold wind or two.

His simple assessment has warmed the heart, as a flash of honesty can do, but only briefly before we return to the vital business of counting rucks and, quite rightly, lauding the wonders of Richie McCaw.

- NZ Herald

Chris Rattue

Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Chris Rattue writes about a wide range of sports for the New Zealand Herald. He has covered numerous sporting events for the Herald including Rugby World Cups and the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Read more by Chris Rattue

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