Chris Rattue 's Opinion

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

Chris Rattue: Rugby's future in the hands of its fans

112 comments
Photo / APN
Photo / APN

To all those rugby heads out there - your sport needs you. Badly.

Whether rugby is desperate enough in chasing attention and dollars is another matter, but it sure needs your help. And quick.

This is the year where the votes will count, following the sugary high of the World Cup extravaganza.

Rugby pinned a lot on winning the World Cup. Well roll up, roll up. Yes, the All Blacks remain a massive hit with the public, but it remains to be seen whether the World Cup flow-on effect actually arrives.

Here's the gloomy rugby picture so far.

The lead-up to the 2011 tournament featured the flattest atmosphere around rugby for a long time, possibly ever. Grounds were barely half-full for the Super 15 with the nadir being a pitiful attendance at Eden Park for a Blues' playoff game against the Waratahs.

Sanzar said this week that New Zealand's TV rugby viewership was down by 5 per cent last year and while the game's representatives can make one-off excuses, down is down.

From a New Zealand perspective, the Super 15 is bordering on a necessary evil, existing to get the big bucks out of a television broadcaster, but not satisfying the audience.

The Super 15 has lost both its sex appeal (for want of a better phrase) and a strong connection with the fan base in New Zealand, and no more so than in the crucial Auckland market.

Explanations for this are difficult, but provincial parochialism and rugby tribalism have waned. In contrast, Australia has experienced a rugby viewership boom - it has no provincial competition so all rugby parochialism and energy funnels into the Super 15. In South Africa, where viewership is said to have held, there is more of a direct link between the Currie Cup and Super 15 teams, but their rugby market is difficult to understand not having lived there.

The troubling bottom line for New Zealand rugby is the near $10 million annual loss suffered by the NZRU, which is dreadful enough in itself, and will also hamper future investment. Teetering Otago will slash player payments, and the Blues are offering knock-down prices for ticket packages.

There is also a lack of dynamic debate on the problems - stories continue to paint a bleak overall picture, yet the game sits on its hands apart from when it waves the Webb Ellis Cup about.

Meanwhile, Australian league is ready to strike. While not without its own issues, league may have taken a major step in addressing them with the formation of an independent administration, thus freeing itself of News Ltd control and the conflict of interest that has limited revenue potential.

Steve Mortimer, an Australian league icon and driving force behind the new administration, this week predicted league would become the dominant Australasian code. While this rhetoric ignores, for a start, the strength of Australian Rules, the NRL is obviously eyeing the vast open spaces in New Zealand left by the Super 15 struggles.

The NRL has two insurmountable advantages over rugby's Super 15. First, the game is action packed, out in the open and with rules that are easy to understand. Second, it is more or less played in the same time zone and country, which gives the public more games to watch involving rivalries they relate to, with all events well covered in the local media, and a one-rule-for-all administration. This also allows it to hold a more riveting finals series, although the silly McIntyre system negates this.

Added to this, the mass of Polynesian talent prefers league over rugby's tangled mess.

Rugby has another image problem - the continual references to the players being tired and needing a rest. World Cup stars such as Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, and Tony Woodcock taking it easy going into the new season is a PR blunder by New Zealand rugby, which should have made every post a winner having snuck, rather fortunately, past the World Cup winning post. And as for those sabbaticals ...

In contrast, league players keep turning up, endure a brutal workload without constant complaint, and are guided by coaches desperate always to pick their best side.

The difference is this: rugby is coming across as a boring, overly complicated sport played for the benefit of the elite players, whereas league players give the impression of wanting to get out there for their love of a gladiatorial sport and to thrill the fans.

On top of this, a homegrown Warriors team with brilliant playmakers is on the rise. And there will, almost certainly, be a second NRL franchise in New Zealand within the next few years. While I don't have any oil on this, Hamilton, with the perfect stadium, or Wellington shape as the prospective home for the new club.

And although there is room for more than one strong code, rugby - for the first time - is facing serious competition for profile, hearts and minds, money and the most talented footballers.

Of course you, the public, might see the rugby situation differently. So just remember, your vote counts. Tell rugby sceptics such as myself that we are wrong, and we will presume you are parked in front of the TV avidly watching the Super 15 - when you are not attending every game that you can.

The 2011 season made New Zealand rugby history. The 2012 season will shape the future.

- 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

Have your say

We aim to have healthy debate. But we won't publish comments that abuse others. View commenting guidelines.

1200 characters left

Sort by
  • Oldest
Stats provided by

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a2 at 02 Sep 2014 02:09:04 Processing Time: 287ms