Matthew Backhouse

Matthew Backhouse is a journalist based in Auckland.

Rugby: What is the state of our game?

Ryan Crotty of Canterbury breaks through tackles during the round 15 ITM Cup match between Canterbury and Bay of Plenty. Photo / Getty Images.
Ryan Crotty of Canterbury breaks through tackles during the round 15 ITM Cup match between Canterbury and Bay of Plenty. Photo / Getty Images.

One year on from the All Blacks winning the World Cup at Eden Park, what is the state of rugby at the so-called "Stadium of Four Million"? APNZ reporters Patrick McKendry, Daniel Richardson and Matthew Backhouse investigate.

Andrew Maddock will be at EcoLight Stadium in Pukekohe early today for Counties-Manukau's biggest game of the season, an ITM Cup semifinal against Southland.

The Counties Rugby Union chief executive will be at work about 8am for a game which kicks off at 2.05pm and which he expects will attract only 4000-5000 spectators.

"It's a little bit hard to know as it's Labour Weekend," he says. "That for us is a reasonable crowd because we're a pretty small community."

When that match kicks off the All Blacks will be preparing for tonight's Bledisloe Cup match against the Wallabies in Brisbane which will attract a full house of more than 50,000 to Suncorp Stadium and a worldwide audience of millions.

Such is the divide in New Zealand rugby, a ravine growing by the year despite, or perhaps because of, the All Blacks' success in the World Cup, which on Tuesday will be exactly 12 months ago.

Super Rugby, one level up from that of Counties, is, like the All Blacks, also on the rise, helped in New Zealand by the success of the Chiefs in winning their inaugural title this year.

The provincial ITM Cup competition, however, is not as healthy, with viewers and spectators staying away from a product on our screens every day except Mondays during a condensed two-month season.

The growing gap between the haves and have-nots is not unexpected in a sport which went professional relatively recently - 1996.

The New Zealand Rugby Union's new sponsorship deal with insurance company AIG, which we will see in action for the first time tonight when the All Blacks take the field with the logo emblazoned on their jersey, is worth millions. It is money which will, in theory, help keep the provinces ticking over and is good news for the game here, if not for the purists who would rather the All Blacks jersey not "spoiled" by commercialism.

And yet the constant financial battle is the one thing which concerns people in the game such as Maddock, although he remains positive about the sport and his province's part in it. He is also hopeful the AIG money, thought to be similar to adidas' contribution to the NZRU of $20 million, trickles down to provinces such as his.

"I think it all goes into the pot and the NZRU makes its decisions based on its various plans and priorities, so I guess yes is it does trickle down to us. The NZRU is one of our big funders, it's the guaranteed income funding stream each year so we have confidence over that component which for us is about a third of our revenue."

The good news for rugby supporters is that the game is proving extremely popular among Kiwi schoolchildren in Counties and beyond.

"It [rugby] has its financial challenges and I think they will be ongoing. But if you put those to one side, I think we're well placed. We're getting lots of uptake in secondary schools and primary schools - player numbers at Counties will be over 8000 and we've never ever been at that level."

For NZRU chief executive Steve Tew, the World Cup's legacy is a positive one, despite doubts remaining over Eden Park which had a massive overhaul before the tournament and now mostly sits empty apart from when the All Blacks play there.

The Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin is another expensive legacy, albeit one which generally proves extremely popular who play or watch the game there.

"I think overall there's no doubt we are benefiting from the whole experience that the country had around World Cup because it wasn't just the performance of the team, it was the whole hosting experience and the way the country rose to the occasion, made the most of it, showcased itself and had a good time and I think that was a pretty outstanding six weeks for this little nation of ours," Tew says.

"It's created a positive environment for us to operate in and that's spun off a whole host of good things that have happened this year. We are very pleased with the way the year's tracking.

"It's going really, really well, so I think we also need to acknowledge that we've had a community plan in place for the best part of the last eight or nine years and the provinces and the clubs and schools have been following some pretty strong initiatives anyway and we have a very mature player market. So if we get any increase I don't think it's down to one thing in particular but a whole lot of hard work largely by the volunteers that do their job on our behalf."

Last month the national union released figures supporting the feelgood factor.

Almost 150,000 people played rugby this year, there was an increase of 6 per cent in children aged under 12 taking the field, and a 7 per cent increase in coaches.

The biggest increase in playing numbers occurred in Maddock's catchment area, Counties. His union celebrated a 14 per cent increase, with Mid Canterbury next on 11 per cent and East Coast on 9 per cent. Auckland did not feature on the list, perhaps worryingly given its huge catchment area.

And as for other not so positive stuff such as ratepayers complaining about an apparent burden in Eden Park and a declining of interest in the ITM Cup, Tew says: "I think we can be proud we've got a world-class facility at Eden Park and one of the legacies from Rugby World Cup is we have a lot of very, very good facilities around the country, not just for playing of the big games but also training facilities. The development of some of the astroturf was brought forward, that's been really big for some communities."

Tew admits the ITM Cup is a tough one, however. "It is a difficult proposition ... because it is constrained in terms of the window we can play it in if we want certain things to happen. We want club rugby to have its space ... and I think one of the upsides is the way it's shaping now it most unions are actually picking their ITM Cup sides from their club competitions."

Part of the reason why the Super Rugby competition was so popular this year - crowds were up 43 per cent and total live TV audiences by 25 per cent - was the later start.

"The World Cup's clearly created an environment where we had a longer gap between the final of the World Cup and the commencement of Investec Super Rugby than we normally do. So that probably helped but TV audiences were all up, we got near a 50 per cent increase in the audience from the year before so that's very pleasing."

As for the controversial placing of the AIG logo on the black jersey, even that appears to have been a success for the NZRU. The expected public outrage has been relatively muted - adidas fared much worse last year when it was revealed an All Blacks jersey could be bought cheaper overseas than in New Zealand.

"I think the first thing is to acknowledge is this is another significant legacy of winning the rugby World Cup so we are able to talk to one of the world's biggest companies about bringing their clout, as much as their cash, to bear on what we want to do in terms of the All Blacks and national teams and also the game generally. It's a significant opportunity that we had to take seriously.

"We respect the legacy of the jersey off the field, as much of the guys that wear it on the field do, and it was a very carefully considered discussion around whether we would even contemplate putting anything else on the jersey other than the commercial mark that adidas already have there. Noting that there had previously been a second mark on the strip when we had Steinlager on it, so it wasn't done lightly.

"I think some of the older ex-All Blacks have probably summed it up as well as you can that in an ideal world we probably wouldn't have anything on the jersey except the fern as it was back in 1905. But we don't live in that world any more. We live in the harsh reality of a professional sport where our players and coaches are the most highly-sought after worldwide and we need to be able to generate revenue to keep them here."

Maddock, meanwhile, who has been quoted in the media as criticising the ITM Cup format, now seems resigned to its fate as a development competition.

"We're the third level of NZ rugby, there's the All Blacks at the top then Super Rugby and I think we need to be realistic about our level," he says.

"I think one of the really positive thing is that we will have at least 10, we think, guys playing Super Rugby next year. We're a development institution and we're pretty successful at developing our players at the moment.

"That's part of it. The other part of it is that it is a genuinely provincial tournament and there are more teams. There are the 14 in the competition that we play and then there are 12 in the next tier [Heartland competition]. For those who really appreciate the provincial thing, we're the place to look."

One year on from the Rugby World Cup, the tournament's costly and sometimes controversial stadium projects have left a legacy of ongoing debt and questions over their future.

Dunedin's Forsyth Barr Stadium is struggling to attract the big events it needs to remain financially viable, while Auckland's revamped Eden Park has been dragged into a review of the city's stadiums as it looks to shake off $55 million in debt.

Critics say the tournament failed to deliver on its promised financial returns and are questioning the long-terms gains of the $555m spent nationally on upgrading stadiums.

Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull says he was always reluctant to invest council funds in the $206m Forsyth Barr Stadium - a cost he warned the community could not afford.

Now he is concerned the stadium is not earning enough to cover its operating expenses, with a $2.4m loss expected this year followed by annual losses of $1m or more in the next three years.

A comprehensive review of the stadium's operating model is ongoing and the council has not ruled out extra funding.

Mr Cull says there was a great atmosphere during the tournament, but whether that justified the expenditure was another matter.

"I don't think we'd be any different from the rest of the country in that the financial benefits of the Rugby World Cup didn't match the hype with which it was promoted,'' he says.

"Some people would say well, like the rest of the country, we didn't get a sufficient payback in our investment.''

As for the 30,000-plus seat venue itself, Mr Cull says it is undoubtedly ``the best place in the country'' to watch the likes of rugby, league or football.

"It is a magnificent spectator experience, watching those sort of games - we've proven that. What we need to do clearly is to get other uses into the stadium to get other revenue streams in.''

Mr Cull sees large concerts like this year's Elton John show as part of the solution - but admits there could be a limit to how many events of that type the venue can attract.

The challenge now is to figure out the most efficient way to run the stadium and optimise its value for the community.

Forsyth Barr Stadium chief executive Darren Burden is under no illusion that the venue's financial result this year hasn't been very good.

But he is confident the costs and expenses would be brought under control.

"The challenge for us is securing those events and bringing the revenue through.''

Mr Burden accepts the stadium could struggle to attract more than a few large sold-out events a year, but he is upbeat about the year ahead, with a number of big events and matches coming up.

"We've got a sound platform to build on going forward. Of course there are significant challenges ahead financially, but when I look to the future events that we've got coming up, the events calender is looking pretty robust.''

In Auckland, ratepayers underwrote $40m of the $256m upgrade to Eden Park - but the stadium is still struggling to break even and is in debt to the tune of $55m, including $6.5m from an earlier council loan.

The decision to upgrade the venue came after a drawn-out debate over whether the city would be better served by a proposed $500m stadium on the waterfront.

Eden Park has now been dragged into a council review being undertaken by Regional Facilities Auckland (RFA), which is consulting on how the city's stadiums should best be put to use.

Among the proposals is to move the Warriors to Eden Park, rather than pumping some $60m into upgrading Mt Smart Stadium.

Eden Park Neighbours' Association spokesman Mark Donnelly says planning the Rugby World Cup in such a short timeframe did not deliver the best decision for Auckland or for the sporting codes themselves.

His concern now is that worries over the stadium's "supposed financial dire straits'' could be playing into an "empire-building'' bid by the council to take over the stadium.

That could lead to more big events which would put a strain on infrastructure in the neighbourhood.

"This area can only cope with so much,'' he says.

"It's difficult to have a stadium out in the suburbs - it's difficult to drive, it's difficult to park. Even trains and buses are difficult.''

Auckland Mayor Len Brown says there is no point in debating whether Eden Park is the right location for the city's pre-eminent rugby stadium.

"That decision was made and the money was spent before the creation of Auckland Council. Our obligation is to ensure we make the most of the investment in that stadium.''

Mr Brown says the stadium's debt is a concern, but he has confidence in its management.

He has also been pleased with the good faith of everyone involved in the review of Eden Park, Mt Smart and North Harbour Stadium.

"Ensuring all three stadiums fulfil their potential so they satisfy the needs of the major codes and the community while limiting the impact on ratepayers is what the current RFA review of major stadiums is really all about.''

Eden Park chief executive David Kennedy says the park is comfortable it can meet all its financial obligations.

``We haven't got a specific date by which we can say that debt will be repaid, but our projections indicate we will continue to meet all our financial obligations and costs.''

He is pleased with crowd numbers at the 50,000-seat stadium since the tournament, including the sold-out Bledisloe Cup match in August.

Mr Kennedy says the stadium review will ultimately benefit the people of Auckland and the sports teams.

Moving the Warriors to Eden Park makes economic sense, and the stadium is well-placed to host large sporting events.

Responding to concerns from neighbours, Mr Kennedy says the stadium works with Auckland Transport and the local community to ensure traffic management plans are relevant and working properly.

- APNZ

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