League: Kiwi Roots clash part of competitions shake-up

By Michael Brown

A State of Origin-style game between Auckland and the rest of New Zealand is just one of a raft of changes to the rugby league calendar.

A New Zealand Origin game involving this country's top players from both the NRL and UK Super League has long been discussed and will make its first appearance next year. The game is being scheduled for the first Saturday in October, a day before the NRL grand final.

It's hoped only players in the NRL grand final and those still involved in Super League playoffs will be absent for a game being dubbed Kiwi Roots. It's hoped a number of New Zealand-based players will also earn selection.

NZRL director of football Graham Lowe has approached more than half the NRL clubs and said he had received a "fantastic" response about releasing players for the game. He believed clubs needed to act in good faith since the Anzac test would be scrapped after next year.

While Kiwi Roots has been added to the calendar announced by the NZRL yesterday, the biggest absentee will be the Bartercard Cup, which has been dropped in favour of a progressive and more club-based season:

March-August: local club competitions.

August: national knockout club competition, involving 16 teams and culminating in a grand final.

September: Northern, Auckland, Central and Southern zones to contest a regional competition.

End of September: Kiwi trial involving players from zonal competition.

October: Kiwi Roots, which will double as a second Kiwi trial. The qualification criteria is yet to be finalised but it's expected to be based on a combination of first club, birth place or parents' birth place or, in the case of someone like Brent Webb who qualified on residency grounds, where they played their first senior game. The Bombay Hills are the geographic divide.

The under-16 and under-18 competitions were also expanded to provide greater district participation and a game is also being planned between the best Australian-based age group Kiwi players and their New Zealand-based counterparts.

It's also understood the Kiwis will play Australia in a World Cup warm-up two weeks after the Kiwi Roots game.

Yesterday's changes, the biggest overhaul in New Zealand rugby league history, were done after a comprehensive competitions review undertaken by Lowe. The intention is they be locked in place until the end of 2012.

The changes have a back-to-the-future look about them, with a number of initiatives replicating successful competitions of years gone by.

The hope is they will work again in today's professional environment.

Lowe said it became clear to him during his review that the Bartercard Cup wasn't working because few people identified with franchises.

"The grassroots of the game is the clubs," Lowe said. "This structure will still give players regular opportunities to play provincial football.

"What became obvious [when I did the competitions review] was that the pathway stopped at a certain level. The selectors didn't consider certain players [for the Kiwis] so what chance did local players have?

"The new system is designed to give local players a better chance of playing for the Kiwis."

The Bartercard Cup was also a costly drain on NZRL resources. The national body was spending as much as 25 per cent of its revenue on the competition, which amounted to a seven-figure sum.

Auckland has long advocated the need to give more currency to club football and believed the Bartercard Cup was undermining this. Auckland chairman Cameron McGregor pointed out that some Bartercard Cup games drew only 50 fans, but Fox Memorial games often get 400-500, and sometimes as many as 1500.

"Nothing is ever going to be perfect but we're pleased the focus is back on the clubs," McGregor said.

"The important thing is the NZRL have shown clear direction and, as long as they stick to what they are about to introduce, we will make it fit with our programmes."

While there was widespread enthusiasm for a number of the changes announced, especially the Kiwi Roots concept, not everyone was pleased to see the demise of the Bartercard Cup.

Canterbury general manager Duane Fyfe supported the retention of the franchise competition, saying players needed to experience the rigours of week-in, week-out rugby league if they were to make it in the NRL.

Central Falcons coach David Lomax also backed it, saying a national franchise system, along the lines of rugby, football and netball, was the most marketable format.

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