John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Let the art of rugby triumph

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All who care for the art of things will hope Graham Henry lifts rugby's World Cup tomorrow night. He has expressed this game at greater pace, power and precision than had seemed possible.

At times, like last Sunday night, his team has hit heights of perfection that make the heart sing and should raise the state of the art everywhere to the possibilities they have revealed.

I dare to think the whole country has shared the thrill of having something we do exceptionally well and can acknowledge the value of that.

It is not just a game, it is a catalyst for much more.

Anyone in Auckland who has not yet wandered into the Cloud on Queens Wharf should do so this weekend. At the far end there is an attractive cluster of wine and food sampling counters.

Buy a voucher and move around the area, from "sea" to "city", "farm" and "orchard". The tastes are a revelation. Maybe we could be a world centre of excellence in cuisine too. With the country's natural attributes we should be.

We once had natural advantages in rugby but that was when the game everywhere was amateur and we were blessed with hardy young farmers whose work kept them fit.

After the game went professional in the 1980s, those grassroots began to wither. I went looking for them just before the start of the World Cup.

Fondly I imagined rugby tourists following their teams to small towns where they would be welcomed by rugby clubs and immersed in the country's effortless hospitality.

At the first stop, in the eastern Bay of Plenty, a disgruntled president of the Eastern Bay Sub-union said his offers had been spurned, clubs were not involved and a council development agency seemed to be organising it all.

Later that Saturday afternoon I went to Whakatane's United club to meet one of the originators of the Rugby World Cup, former NZRU councillor Dick Littlejohn.

The clubrooms were locked until he and three companions arrived at 4pm. They locked up when we left. He mentioned they had managed to stop a sale of the old building to clear the club's debts.

If he had any regrets at assisting at the birth of professional rugby he didn't admit to them. The change was inevitable, he said. Entrepreneurs were offering money for a world tournament before he and a few others convinced the IRB to establish a world cup.

At Rotorua, the manager of the Kahukura club was doing his utmost to get into the event. Bob Thompson put a notice on the club website offering evenings of good cheer and he had a wad of responses.

Thompson was an NZ Maori representative in the days when top players were grounded in clubs and kept in touch. Those days are gone, he said.

Schools have displaced clubs as the nursery of New Zealand players. The most promising are liable to go straight from school into a professional team's development squad.

Even their provinces might never see them. A province such as Poverty Bay has become a "feeder union", said its chief executive, Mark Weatherall. Good Gisborne boys like Rico and Hosea Gear had to go somewhere else to make the grade.

When a sport turns professional, everything turns turtle. The energy and income it used to draw from clubs of amateur players and voluntary enthusiasts cannot pay professional players, and the sport comes to rely on television rights.

Clubs and provinces lose much of their previous income because the rugby that amateurs play on Saturday afternoons cannot compete with the professionals on television.

The game at all levels has come to depend on the revenue the All Blacks can earn. Even the next step down, Super 15 franchises, are struggling.

Weatherall gave me a rundown on the stretched finances of a union such as his and added, "I don't know what will happen if the All Blacks don't win the World Cup."

Actually, he agreed, we don't know what will happen if they do win.

Despite the excellence of the teams that John Hart, Graham Henry and Robbie Deans have produced in the professional era, despite New Zealand teams winning the tri-nations and Super championships 10 years out of 16, we are bored with the formats.

Match attendances and television audiences have dwindled in the past few years.

In the fun generated for the World Cup, I've been fighting a terrible thought: is this how dull rugby succeeds in Europe?

It is one of life's great mysteries that Twickenham can be filled with happy singing fans season after season for the fare we saw in the first semifinal last weekend, a dreary match decided by rigid law enforcement.

Can event promotion count for everything and art for nothing? Go All Blacks.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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