Chris Rattue 's Opinion

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

Chris Rattue: Rugby tsunami swamps other codes

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With soccer and league in the doldrums, NZ is relying on the lower-profile sports to fly the flag of diversity

But a black tide is not a healthy one if it sweeps everything else away. Illustration / Rod Emmerson
But a black tide is not a healthy one if it sweeps everything else away. Illustration / Rod Emmerson

Rugby was the winner in 2013. No doubt about that. But did our other traditional football codes have to be such losers? League and soccer had shockers, with so much to gain. Underneath rugby, a ghetto exists.

Rugby though ... well, it couldn't have got much better. The game's new hero, Kieran Read, is a dream come true. He plays in a glamour forward position, and is as genuine as the day is long. He oozes team ethos. He is the real deal as a player, and then some. He is the new Richie McCaw while the old one battles heroically not to fade away.

There was an unbeaten All Black season and two never-to-be-forgotten tests, in Johannesburg and Dublin. They were spectacular. The Chiefs won again under coaches who quietly attract respect. New, blockbusting stars like Charles Piutau are popping up. Ben Smith is the wonder boy next door. Benji Marshall will zap the scene up, SBW is on the way. On the back of the All Blacks' victory march, the general population has warmed to coach Steve Hansen.

He talks Colin Meads deep, with a humour dangerously dry and enough interesting stuff between the lines by rugby standards.

New Zealand is relying on the mid-and lower-profile sports, and often individuals, to fly the flag of diversity. Scott Dixon, Lauren Boyle, Lydia Ko, Valerie Adams, Tom Walsh and a host of new-agers like the kiteboarder Marc Jacobs and surfer Ella Williams reflect the real New Zealand. NBA basketballer Steven Adams could be a game changer. But they mainly compete in other countries, often in relative obscurity.

This is still a football code country, and it is turning into a one-trick town. This is not an attack on rugby. Far from it. But a black tide is not a healthy one if it sweeps everything else away.

Seeds of trouble were planted in years of success for soccer and league. National coaches Steve Kearney and Ricki Herbert were untouchable after their World Cup triumphs. There was reason to be sceptical about their abilities - they were heavily assisted in their World Cup glories (Kearney had Wayne Bennett, Herbert had Ryan Nelsen) and subsequent results had alarm bells ringing.

The Kiwis turned into a shambles at this year's tournament defending the 2008 title. They had the strongest Kiwis side of the modern era yet got chewed up by Australia in the final. They were lethargic and poorly organised. The response has been even more worrying. Times have changed.

In 1988, when the Kiwis crashed in the final at Eden Park in a game that drew publicity unheard of for league until then, there was a swift reaction from the administration, and the public seemed to care.

By comparison, the 2013 Old Trafford disaster has been treated with a yawn. The New Zealand Rugby League trotted out a tired-sounding corporate line about Kearney developing further. Come on, troops. After a defeat like that, the national coach gets the chop. End of story. Start again. Get desperate.

Herbert did face more obstacles and our national soccer team are international minnows. It is difficult to bring the All Whites together, difficult to get sufficient warm-up games. But Herbert had contributed to that with an awful Nations Cup campaign in Honiara. The World Cup playoffs against Mexico matched the league collapse.

Outside of the national teams, the NRL has a solid following with Kiwi stars, but the actual Kiwis hardly play on home soil. The soccer Phoenix can hardly win a game these days, and the Warriors failed again. Crowds will dwindle. The Warriors are in even greater danger, because of the diabolical stadium situation in Auckland and no sign of progress there. Domestic league and soccer collapsed, long ago.

The crowds are still clinging to the basketball Breakers through tough times, which is a positive sign.

Our national cricket team actually looks in interesting shape, so long as the ICC comes to the party with top opponents. A fleet of excellent cricket commentators prop the game up. The NRL nines will be the best thing to hit Auckland in a long time. Decent tennis tournaments await. Our expectations are a little lower in summer.

But 2013 is the year that soccer and league blew it, big time.

The All Blacks are sweeping all before them, in daily life and on the field. They are as distant as ever in revealing anything truly revealing, but know what works with an eager population and have learned how to stay on message. Win on the field, and mumble a selfless attitude off it. New Zealand laps that up. The two other football codes - which once held secondary but vibrant roles - are isolated.

One of the saddest memories of the year were interviews of Herbert after his All Whites had rolled over for Mexico, away and at home. First, there was a bitter, self-obsessed rave. In Wellington, he plugged his own soccer academy and its main sponsor. Hell will freeze over before Hansen, McCaw or Read talk like that.

- 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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