Rugby: One man's fervent mission to prevent provincial cull

By Chris Rattue

It is a David versus Goliath rugby battle.

David Kirk-Jones, who has set himself the task of saving four teams to be slung out of the elite Air New Zealand Cup division, admits the mission is "bloody frightening".

"It is the rocking chair test - I might get to 80 and look back and realise I should have done something about this," he says from the lunch room at his short-staffed machine hire business in east Auckland.

It is an old-world lunch room with a battered fridge and stove whose brands have long been discontinued. Kirk-Jones doesn't want provincial rugby unions to go the same way.

"I said to my partner Sarah [Campbell], I can't look myself in the eye and not challenge this," he says. "The mortgage isn't on the line but in terms of personal cost and taking me away from the business, a lot is ..."

Kirk-Jones says Northland, Counties-Manukau, Manawatu and Tasman are the doomed teams, with Bay of Plenty close to the danger zone.

The protest methods are simple.

An old ally of Kirk-Jones, Kevin Hare from Wellington, worked 48 hours straight to set up the saveourteams website, which includes downloadable petition forms.

About 1000 names arrived in the first three days towards the aim of presenting a 20,000-name petition to the NZ Rugby Union on November 13. Banners will unfurl at rugby grounds and a banner contest is on the website.

Kirk-Jones says local or national Government intervention - ie, money - may be needed in tough times. Swimming against the tide of changing times, he claims rugby deserves the leg up because it connects with our society beyond the capability of other sports.

Supporters, he says, include Colin and Verna Meads - the great man said teams deserve the right to play for their future - the Northland stalwart David Holwell, and rugby figures Kirk-Jones is proud to have met.

More vaguely, he suggests the 14 Air New Zealand Cup provinces support him, but that the five Super 14 base unions are shy of publicly bucking the NZRU's stance.

Kirk-Jones is putting plenty on the line. The family business has had to brave the economic recession. He is also on the hire frontline when we meet because a group of his workers are making their annual pilgrimage to the NRL grand final in Sydney. Kirk-Jones never joins them. "I'm a rugby man through and through," he says.

Kirk-Jones was Auckland Grammar educated but fell in love with Manawatu rugby while at Massey University. It is a place where you "shake the hands of your heroes" after a game.

He says NZRU chief executive Steve Tew got it right in forming a 14-team competition around the only population centres capable of fielding teams in the top echelon. Some big-city areas are struggling, while the teams under threat are starting to flourish, he says. In other words, David Kirk-Jones says he is trying to save the NZRU from the mistake of using obsolete information and thinking.

On this first glance, Kirk-Jones is a realist fired by high hope and deep conviction more than outrageous optimism. He was a lieutenant to Hare when he raised funds for families of rugby players killed in New York's 9/11 tragedy. Activities included a game during which Kirk-Jones busted his shoulder and called time on his playing days.

"I looked at how big they were and how little I was and knew it was time to go," says Kirk-Jones.

That certainly is not his stance right now.

- NZ Herald

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