IT'S time to think big or face the prospect of drowning in the depths of obscurity.

The hollow sounds emanating from vacant stadiums around the country suggest the ITM Cup rugby is on that treacherous path of uncertainty.

The yawning disparity between the country's national provincial championship and that of Super Rugby is conversely disproportionate to the number of people streaming through the turnstiles.

A McLean Park humming to its capacity for the All Blacks versus Pumas test match last Saturday will be juxtaposed with the turnout at the Napier venue when the Hawke's Bay Magpies defend the Ranfurly Shield against the Otago Razorbacks on Sunday from 4.35pm.


Will fans come out in droves to support the Magpies as they did in the test match?

They should, because the Hawke's Bay Rugby Football Union has left some of the extra seats intact for the 19,000 capacity and a shield ticket will cost a fraction of the test one ( in the vicinity of a burger combo).

The quality of football, if previous nail-biting shield matches are anything to go by, should be equally riveting to the tune of Come on the Bay.

Whether the weather gods will come to the party only time will tell but suffice it to say the prospect of Sunday-arvo footy in this week's balmy offerings must warm the cockles after last Saturday night's deluge.

If you ask me, some of the shield matches have had the adrenaline flowing more than a test match, such as the one against second-tier Argentina here.

However, because of the cash outlay on Saturday it'll be understandable if some people won't be able to help pack the park again.

With the All Blacks enticing about 60,000 fans to watch them play the American Eagles in Chicago on November 1, it drives home the reality of how non-metropolitan centres in New Zealand should grab any opportunity to host the ABs.

The prospect of travelling to the US or Japan to watch the Black Machine can put a serious dent on a family's mortgage payments.


If money and boosting the world champions' profile on the promise of a global fan base finds traction then fewer matches may be played in New Zealand.

Some fans grizzle about the inclusion of the Pumas in the four-nation Rugby Championship on the foundation of the Argentines' lack of prowess.

But the question is how will the Pumas of the world become top-tier nations if they are not included in such southern hemisphere competitions?

I hasten to add at this juncture that that also applies to people bitching and bellyaching about the mistakes referees made in the ABs v Pumas and Springboks v Wallabies test matches last Saturday.

Northern hemisphere whistleblowers aren't as good as their southern counterparts but won't ostracising them from the elite level be tantamount to counterproductivity?

To dredge officials' mistakes from previous matches, as happened with referee Romain Poite just before he controlled the ABs v Wallabies match in Auckland, is equally myopic.

How can a ref who has just internationally eaten humble pie for his mistakes a year later be expected to officiate with impartiality within the next day or so?

It seems the problem lies with the protocols, such as rules governing the input of assistant refs and TMOs, in the face of glaring errors that unfold on the park.

But back to the teams and competitions.

That Samoa have scored a mid-week test against the ABs on July 8 before the World Cup in Britain is a start.

To find a sponsor who provides an incentive to the Pacific Islanders, albeit perhaps an unrealistic one, is also encouraging.

While they may appear to be diplomatic gestures they in fact go a long way in trying to address some of the inequalities that threaten to reduce the code to an All Black monopoly.

It's frightening to think rugby could one day be reduced to a totalitarian state.

Imagine playing the sport akin to a baseball World Series within America.

The gulf in skills means the dominant country will invite a handful of contenders to make up numbers so they can become world champions in their own lunchtime.

The sad reality is the ITM Cup is the new premier club rugby, providing a platform of sorts for Super selection.

Other major codes such as cricket and football have grappled with similar demons, too.

The ITM Cup wallahs can drop their bundle or hoist it on their shoulders and run.

Why not broaden the NPC horizon a little.

Look across the ditch to turn the NPC into a "Transtasman Cup" competition that combines top Kiwi provinces with elite ones from the Shute Shield in NSW, the Queensland Premier League and the ACT equivalent.

Okay, don't choke on your toast and cereals but why not throw in the Ranfurly Shield to spice up things.

The Log o' Wood is a Kiwi heritage but the rate at which the NPC is losing traction the NZRU might as well allocate a spot for it at the Rugby Museum.

The Argentina union is keen to grow its skill base and has granted an exemption to its elite players to ply their trade in Super Rugby but still be eligible for national selection.

Not everyone in Puma country is happy about the union's stance because they feel that exemption should be extended to every Argentine to play in any country at any elite level of competition for the good of the code there.

Hey, why not entice some Argies into the transtasman NPC Cup?

Again, think big. What have we got to lose?