Chris Rattue 's Opinion

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

Chris Rattue: Rugby must not be bailed out yet again

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Otago's demise lies squarely at the feet of arrogant administrators at both a national and regional level. Photo / NZPA
Otago's demise lies squarely at the feet of arrogant administrators at both a national and regional level. Photo / NZPA

The Otago chairman Wayne Graham is reluctant to apportion blame for the collapse of his rugby union but hell, let's be bold and give it a go on his behalf.

For a kickoff, there must be no Government bailout of the Otago union, which is in such a big financial hole that striking oil is about the only way of avoiding the disgrace of a major union going into liquidation.

Should the unthinkable occur, and the Government dare shovel yet more money rugby's way, then it must be accompanied by a full inquiry, and the prospect of a cleanout at rugby's headquarters. There is no way that the national administration can be absolved from this Otago mess, given their mishandling of the national competition for many years.

The Kremlin-style NZRU lost a staggering $9.5 million last year, and now this - and yet their reputations seem unharmed thanks to friends in high places and an inherent belief that rugby people are of a higher order despite a lot of evidence to the contrary.

Rugby has long lived on the benefit, and the benefit of doubt, but the truth is starting to hit home, as it always would when you looked at all those empty stands in recent years.

Deep into the professional rugby age, this dinosaur of a sport has been trading on myths and legends, using its historic place in New Zealand as a bulwark against realistic appraisal.

Graham intimates Otago's imminent death is of a thousand cuts, too many to detail. Even in a crisis, the game doesn't want to know the truth, reveal it or believe that its public deserves to be told.

Led by control freaks in Wellington, the drive, initiative, innovation and intelligence needed to nurture rugby has been obliterated.

Nothing epitomises the failure more than the national competition, a once-prized jewel in the crown that has been mangled in so many confusing directions that one of the opening assignments for any season is to work out how the latest and often baffling format works. Yes, the professional era was going to tear at the NPC's status. But no, it didn't have to be mishandled in this way.

Blame for the relative collapse of Auckland rugby, once the most glamorous and powerful province in the world, can also be partly laid at the national administration's door, especially as it controls the player contracts, although the insipid leadership at Eden Park inspires about as much excitement as a headache in a snow storm.

The lack of foresight, charismatic leadership and determination extended to the World Cup, where the chance to build a modern stadium in Auckland, one that would help regenerate a number of sports, was lost in order that good money be thrown after bad at Eden Park.

Which is not to say that running a nationwide competition or a team in it does not face hurdles in this sparsely populated country situated a world away from the economic power of Europe. However, the NZRU could not have done a worse job with the NPC. They have dillied and dallied, chopped and changed, ummed and ahhed, and then have done it all again.

Considering the history of state advantages enjoyed by rugby, it was no surprise to read someone had inquired of the Government whether Otago, well over $2 million in distress, might be bailed out.

Even the rugby-loving Prime Minister John Key appeared to shy away from encouraging yet another rugby raid on our tax money although his "preference" that Otago get out of its own dicky doo is by no means adamant enough.

There should be outrage and protest on the streets if one cent of public money goes towards the Otago union. Rugby is a private enterprise, and one that needs to stand on its own two feet, for its own sake as much as anything.

To pretend the country's unions are anything other than feeder teams for the professional game would be a lie.

Rugby was encouraged to raid both national and council coffers in the name of the World Cup, the return being vague New Zealand branding claims and exaggerated tourism excitement. (As with the America's Cup, many established businesses actually suffered during the pageant.)

Enough is enough for a sport that has had sole right to commandeer the state school sporting system for decades, using the 1st XVs as a player recruitment scheme including - as former headmaster Sir Graham Henry well knows - through scholarships to entice Pacific Island players.

The media has been just as generous, putting up with years of condescending and downright obstructive behaviour from a sport that believed it had a right to act like a secret lodge. Even in a crisis, the information has been posted on a noticeboard, and late.

Having learned on Monday that the Otago union is ready to unhitch itself from the full responsibility to creditors, the good people of the region have been given until Friday to save what is effectively a branch office of the NZRU, even if technicalities separate the union from the Highlanders Super 15 franchise. To which you can only ask: which came first, the insult or the injury?

Meanwhile, head office hangs on to power by holding every significant purse string, operating on a jobs-for-the-boys basis, losing $10 million a year, it's only discernable policy being winning the World Cup - something that would have failed but for the home-crowd pressure on the referee which denied France a deserved victory at Eden Park.

Yes, rugby faces a tough ask, because New Zealand produces brilliant players in an economy that doesn't match. But its fat-cat attitude has survived decades past a used-by date.

As with the Kremlin, the overlords have stood on high, applauding their star troops, while the peasants starve and the system rots because free enterprise is stifled.

You could argue the collapse of Otago is a watershed moment, when the reality of rugby's situation is driven home, that it will lead to a new breed of administrator ready to take on the future rather than relying on the myths and legends of the past.

But I doubt it. More collapses will follow. Rugby's arrogance - even in the face of a humiliating bankruptcy - knows no bounds. All the rest of us can do is ensure that its sense of entitlement does not extend to a hand in the public till any more.

- NZ Herald

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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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