Auckland's nadir has arrived. Relegated or not, the team and administration must pull themselves up by the bootlaces, writes Liam Napier.
Hitting rock bottom usually forces major change. There are no excuses left; no room to dodge reality.
This is where the most visible arm of Auckland rugby now sits, regardless of whether they are relegated from the Mitre 10 Cup Premiership this weekend, which looks all the more likely after last night's loss to Canterbury.
The ignominy of relegation may not be what it used to be but, if it comes to pass, severely dented pride, and further erosion of status, still immediately follows.
Whether they drop a division or not, Auckland's gradual deterioration can no longer be ignored, or accepted. It's a plight that pleases some but also hurts many, not least those who contributed greatly to the union's halcyon days.
Auckland captured 15 championships from 1976-2005. The team of 1985-1993 made 61 defences of the coveted Ranfurly Shield. That record still stands. Only now, it is a symbol of just how far the once revered have fallen.
"The whole country was in awe of Auckland," said All Blacks great Bryan Williams, a former Auckland player, coach and board member. "That's definitely changed, hasn't it?"
Williams laments, among other things, the simple error rate of this year's team. He recalls his Auckland side going successive trainings without one mistake -- and when Joe Stanley finally did drop the ball, gasps emerged. No pats on the back. Stanley swiftly apologised.
Standards and accountability set by today's team do not warrant comparison. "It's hugely disappointing to see the continued lack of performance," Williams said.
Comparing eras is not entirely fair. All Blacks rarely turn out for the provinces these days, with Super Rugby reducing it to a third-tier development competition. Yet Auckland boasts a squad that has, once again, grossly underperformed.
New Zealand's largest and most ethnically diverse city is a complex beast with many heads. But three areas need drastic improvement before this union will rise again. They include: talent pathways, calibre of coaches, and a dysfunctional relationship with the Blues.
IN THE initial years of professionalism, Auckland and the Blues were virtually one dominant entity. Wellington were also the Hurricanes; Canterbury the Crusaders.
The advent of private ownership changed that dynamic, and in the case of Auckland, clearly for the worse. During those early years, North Harbour, in particular, were largely frozen out of the Blues. It remains a sore point today, and forms part of the reason a major divide developed between Auckland rugby and the Blues.
The other was a personality clash between former long-serving Blues and Auckland chief executive Andy Dalton and Blues private owner Murray Bolton. This feud progressed to the point where Auckland is largely not welcome to use the Blues' base at Alexandra Park.
Yes, two rugby organisations in the same city apparently can't co-exist at the same facility. Auckland is on the hunt for their own training base after the council effectively kicked them out of Nixon Park.
Other Blues board members are known to have long-held grudges with Auckland rugby, too.
"I'm really concerned for one about the disconnect between the Blues and the provinces," Williams said. "It's a fundamental flaw. Unless they fix that, we're going to continue to beat our head against a brick wall.
"I would have thought the Blues would welcome their unions to use their facilities but apparently they don't. It really shouldn't happen. It's like coalition government -- sort it out and get on with it."
Williams' frustrations are also shared by Wayne Pivac, who coached Auckland to the 2002 and 2003 provincial titles and this year guided the Llanelli-based Scarlets to the Pro 12 championship.
"I don't think there is that alignment any more. Some people within the Blues franchise are very happy about that," Pivac said. "Auckland is a big union with a magnificent history behind it. With the catchment area and talent available, you expect much better."
Auckland chief executive Jarrod Bear has been in the role 12 months. In that time, he believes ties with the Blues have improved to the point where he talks regularly with counterpart Michael Redman.
"I'm always open to how we can improve that relationship and foster greater success," Bear said.
COACHING IS the next concern. From Sir Fred Allen to John Hart, Maurice Trapp and Williams who together compiled a scarcely believable 94 per cent winning record, and Sir Graham Henry, Auckland have harnessed brilliant rugby minds.
Henry was briefly involved this year in the week leading up to Auckland's 38-19 victory over Bay of Plenty - a rare bright spot in an otherwise forgettable campaign.
Appointing Nick White under the continuity theory is thought to have involved a flawed process that was not thorough enough. Before last night's final round robin match, White had eight wins from 19 games in two seasons.
Pivac praised White's work under him at Northland and Auckland but it is clear the former Blues prop was not ready for the jump from assistant to head coach. Auckland's management team this year also featured two scrum coaches.
These failings ultimately rest with Auckland rugby's hierarchy. Advertising White's role well before the end of this season was an embarrassing look for all involved.
When any coaching group can't challenge the players, it creates a vicious cycle. Players, many of whom come from high performance systems where everything is done for them into a semi-professional environment, become unmotivated. As we've seen this year, it all then falls apart.
Williams believes experienced club coaches who understand the region must be groomed and embraced.
"The management needs to be looked at, too, with the decisions that have been made and appointment of various people. If you go back and look at some of the horrendous appointments historically at the Blues as well, you can trace the beginning of the demise.
"It comes back to building the right sort of culture. The players have got to want to represent Auckland and know what that means. It's a magnificent city, Auckland. It's got huge natural beauty and attractions but you get the sense the players don't understand what they're representing.
"I know when old timers like me talk about these things, the modern-day player will say that they do understand who they represent, but this is the most successful union in the country so show it consistently."
Applications for White's successor closed yesterday, with more than 24 candidates signalling their interest after an independent global search.
Bear suggested the next coach could come from outside the region.
"Ultimately it would be nice for us to recruit from within our community but potentially we haven't got the right development of coaches coming through," Bear said. "They may or may not be ready."
Underwhelming results only make retaining talent more difficult. Auckland, the only region to send two teams, won the national under-19 tournament this year and had nine players in the world champion New Zealand under-20s.
Five from the under-19s played for Auckland in this year's Mitre 10 Cup but how many more progress is uncertain.
Electric finisher Braydon Ennor, the leading provincial try-scorer this year, is just one to already slip through from the New Zealand under-20s, having come through St Kentigern College only to be snapped up by Canterbury and the Crusaders.
Ennor is a classic case of Auckland's world-class first XV competition being cherry-picked by aggressive talent scouts but it also reflects Canterbury's recent success of developing and promoting players.
Factors such as Auckland's cost of living, combined with a blanket $1 million Mitre 10 Cup salary cap where salaries range from $21,000 to $55,000, also contributing to retention challenges.
THE REALITY, with one team, is Auckland will never provide a home for all its talent. But selecting and growing the right players remains crucial.
"There are a lot of Auckland-based players playing across the Bridge and for other sides," Pivac said. "A few years ago, those players would want to pull on an Auckland jersey. That's something that has to be addressed. Every young guy coming through a first XV in Auckland you would like to think would want to pull on a blue and white hooped jersey."
Bear is aware this can't continue. With Ben Meyer moving to head of high performance, changes are being made to how age-grade teams -- as far down as the under-14s -- are selected and approach the game.
Instead, for instance, of picking two strong ball-carrying midfielders, the message now is to seek a balanced pairing that also offers strong defensive and distribution skills. Strategies and tactics will be provided to these teams so the objective is not simply to roll opposition by 60 points, but rather mould players who will excel in the professional arena.
"This season has provided the catalyst to look at our systems; look at ourselves in terms of how we improve and set up for sustainable success -- not just a short term solution," said Bear.
"While we want to see instant success in 2018, and that will be our objective, it's going to take three to five years to see the fruition of what happens within talent identification through to the Mitre 10 Cup," the chief executive added.
Auckland's nadir has arrived. It may be a different era but this province must now learn to pick itself up and do justice to its proud history.