In the Black
Against a relatively weak economic environment, the game in New Zealand is in particularly good shape.
Great shape, even.
The New Zealand Rugby Union posted a $3.2 million annual profit - and that after record investment in grassroots and provincial rugby.
The profit was made not by cutting costs but by growing revenue by $3.2 million on 2011's figure.
However, the most heartening number has come out of provincial rugby, where the 14 ITM Cup unions collectively posted a surplus of $744,00 compared with a collective loss of $714,000 the previous year.
Almost unbelievably, all 14 are now profitable. Total NZRU reserves have climbed to $52 million and the forecasts for 2014 and 2015 are moderately encouraging in that, while they may not signal significant growth, they do at least hint at present levels being sustained.
A major, if understated, goal in the past 12 months has been to attract external investment to Super Rugby.
The NZRU hasn't been prepared to give up majority ownership or player contracts, which led many to wonder whether they would be unsuccessful in finding backers. But the Blues, Chiefs, Hurricanes and Crusaders have all received cash from new investors to the tune of a combined $15 million. The benefit for the NZRU is that it offsets their risk and exposure and will allow them to allocate money to other areas of the sport without being compromised in regard to disputes around player obligations and expectations. The franchises have better ability to attract better players and should be better run, more commercially aware, viable and determined to grow fan bases.
Maybe the stadium experience will improve in 2014, with a sense that the
fans who turn up at stadiums are as important, if not more so, than those who prefer to pay their TV subs.
The perfect season is a first and the All Blacks have consolidated their position as the No 1 side in the world. Their aura has grown and 26 wins from 28 tests under coach Steve Hansen is a phenomenal record. The All Black sevens side were also crowned World Series winners as well as World Cup winners in Moscow, with the women's sevens also triumphant in Russia. In addition, the Black Ferns cleaned up England in a three-test series and the Maori beat Canada and the United States in North America.
Backed up their 2012 title with another and have shown the way on many fronts. They were the first to operate an extended coaching team, first to split their executive away from the provincial base, first to build a dedicated training base and first to realise that star players did not necessarily make the difference at Super Rugby level. They have been the smartest recruiters in the country.
No other nation in the world seems to be able to create an endless supply of almost test-ready youngsters who slip in an All Black jersey and, within three caps, have the incumbent under pressure. Talent identification and development programmes are world class.
At the professional level, New Zealand sent a genuine message that head knocks are taken seriously.
Conrad Smith suffered a blow to his head playing for the Hurricanes and was given ample time and space to determine when he should return.
The same was true of Piri Weepu after he took a sickening thump playing against the Highlanders. There was a shocking incident in Australia when George Smith was able to carry on playing against the Lions after he was taken off in obvious distress from a major head blow. It's difficult, almost impossible, to imagine a similar incident happening in New Zealand.
The under-20s, for the second consecutive year, were not particularly strong and didn't make the final of the Junior World Cup. The 2011 side - the last to win - has provided nine capped All Blacks and a further four who have either been involved in wider training squads or All Black squads without being capped. It's unlikely many, if any, will come out of the 2012 and 2013 under-20 sides - a possible problem further down the line.
The overall number of people playing the game stagnated this year but fell 3 per cent in the critical teen category.
Generation Y are proving rather hard to please and that is after multiple initiatives to make it easier for them to sign up and play. Playing numbers are disproportionately low in the wider Auckland region - a major concern, as the country needs its major metropolitan area to be strong in all areas. Auckland needs a solid playing base, high fan engagement, successful professional teams and significant financial backers. If it doesn't, the rest of the country will suffer.
It felt like things were on the improve in the South after Jamie Joseph arrived as coach in 2010.
Results were better and, more importantly, he was attracting more and better players to Dunedin. By the end of 2012, the Highlanders appeared to have momentum and a seriously capable squad, having picked up Ma'a Nonu, Tony Woodcock and Brad Thorn. But they were terrible in 2013, finishing 14th. They were clearly not a happy crew and are back to square one now having seen Woodcock and Nonu return to the Blues and others such as Tamati Ellison, Hosea Gear, Kade Poki, Colin Slade, Jamie Mackintosh and Andrew Hore move on.
Future Season Structure
There is an overwhelming sense of dread as to what the 2016 season will look like under the new broadcast deal. The NZRU, Sanzar and the IRB have a golden opportunity to create a Super Rugby competition that engages more people and yet also creates longer rest and recovery windows for the players - effectively allowing less to be more. But the plans suggest that Sanzar is going to give us heaps more of the same, failing to address the key issue of a longer pre-season, ending up with the June test window staying where it is and endless moaning about the same old problems of players being fatigued and flogged.
The Pacific Issue
No doubt the NZRU don't see the validity of the flak they take for not having, in the professional age, the All Blacks playing a test in the Pacific Islands.
No one is suggesting the NZRU is complicit in 'pillaging' from the Islands but through schools, clubs, provinces and Super Rugby sides (as well as wider economic and lifestyle factors), huge numbers of Pacific Island players are attracted to New Zealand. The All Blacks - at the top of the pyramid - benefit greatly from this accumulated talent pool and playing a test somewhere in the Islands is, quite simply, the right thing to do. The issue surfaced again this year because an invitation to play in Suva to help Fiji celebrate their centenary was rejected but the NZRU fixed up a game in Tokyo on short notice.
It is part of the players' collective agreement that they wear mouthguards when they play. Not only do mouthguards protect players from breaking their teeth or putting them through their lips or face, they can also reduce the effects of head knocks. Yet many senior All Blacks and other professionals did not wear mouth guards this year.
The NZRU has vowed to heap the pressure on those who don't and has advised players they will not only be in breach of contract but will also be setting a terrible example to younger players.
To work on
It was a struggle to get there and a long time coming but women in this country are now included in the players' collective contract. Despite being tasked with winning Olympic sevens gold, the women are not being paid in line with their male counterparts who have the same goal. But the fact some women will have moderately significant retainers is a start and puts New Zealand ahead of most other countries.
Internal Tour Games
France, after initial reluctance, were persuaded to play a tour game against the Blues during their three test series in June. England have also been persuaded to take on the Crusaders when they come in June this year. It is the visiting team that decides how many games they want to play when they tour but the NZRU works tirelessly to put together meaningful and enticing itineraries, as the whole idea of a three-week tour was to rekindle the prospect of midweek games.