D-Day for provincial rugby has arrived.
Today, at the New Zealand Rugby Union's Wellington HQ, the nine-person board will vote on the future of the Air New Zealand Cup.
They will do so against the backdrop of what has been a bloody public battle.
In one corner stands NZRU chief executive Steve Tew, fierce proponent of a 10-team Air NZ Cup with a six-team second tier.
In the other corner stand four angry unions, riding a wave of high-profile support, on the cusp of being axed from the existing 14-team competition.
If only it were that black and white.
If you think of the Air NZ Cup as a house, the foundations underpinning it are the negotiations over the new collective agreement between the NZRU and the Players' Association.
The new collective is expected to remove the onus of contracting of Super rugby players away from the unions and on to the franchises.
That will ease the financial burden on unions, making them more viable than they were when the NZRU chose to push through change.
The contracting and competition models need to work hand in hand. Even if the board votes for the increasingly unpopular 10-6 recommendation, the Players' Association is expected to oppose a six-team second tier unless it can be convinced it is "meaningful".
Instead it has come up with its own proposal, outlined in the Herald on Tuesday, which will see the status quo remain next year before dividing the 14 teams into two divisions of seven from 2011 onwards.
To see the whole picture you need to rewind.
As several unions lurched into fiscal turmoil they demanded change.
The Air NZ Cup was not financially sustainable in its current format; it had little credibility if it could not operate in its own window, they said.
The NZRU called for submissions from the unions. What they received, from the big five to the smaller unions, was consistent: they all demonstrated brazen self interest, but they also advocated change.
So the NZRU has tried to implement change. With change came resistance.
Back to the present.
Unions that were once staring at insolvency have now got their houses in order. Rugby, too, has enjoyed a revival in the provinces, though apathy reigned in the big cities.
An advisory released by the NZRU yesterday gave few clues which way the vote might go.
But the flagged attendance of Mid Canterbury and Wanganui indicates they are on track to join a six-team second tier, but that will remain moot if the jungle drums are correct and the board votes to overturn its decision to cull four teams.
The fact there will be no comment until Friday afternoon could also indicate serious consideration will be given to the Players' Association's seven-seven proposal.
That could be where the elusive win-win scenario exists.
By combining a new competition with a new contracting model, Tew's original objectives of creating a meaningful, attractive and financially sustainable competition might be met, if not in the format he envisioned.
The competition options
Status quo: This is looking increasingly likely for 2010, as reported in the Herald a month ago, but maintaining a 14-team single division from 2011 onwards is problematic.
The window for the provincial championship will reduce so the round-robin format will have to be manipulated at the very least.
A US-style conference system based on geography has been
talked about, but this is unlikely to gain traction for the simple reason that the big guns – Auckland, Canterbury, Wellington and Waikato
– want guarantees they will get to play each other every year.
The 7-7 split: The Players' Association proposal, which will be shown to 16 provincial union chief executives tomorrow.
The status quo would remain next year, but the following year the teams would split into two divisions of seven teams each, based solely on their results in 2010 (and subject to a solvency test).
Each team would play the other six teams in their division but
interspersed would be three rounds of inter-divisional matches, which would be determined by a televised draft. There would be automatic one-up, one-down promotion-relegation.
The 10-6 split: The NZRU's brainchild which has split the
rugby public. Few outside the four potentially culled unions – believed to be Tasman, Northland, Counties Manukau and Manawatu – would argue against the notion of a 10-team premier division, though the criteria used in selecting the 10 teams has been more problematic.
The chances are the rugby would be more competitive and there would be fewer "dead rubbers" as the season wore on. It is the six-team second tier that is causing conniptions. It seemed flawed when it was first announced and time has not done it any favours.
Counties chief executive Phil McConnell called it a "Clayton's competition" and it is hard to pick holes in that assertion.
Wanganui and Mid Canterbury have been convinced by the NZRU that they have the ability to move up to join the four culled unions in the second tier, but the players do not believe there is any merit in this.
Steve Tew - NZRU chief executive
Nobody has more at stake than the embattled Tew. If the board does not back him, again, he looks like a lame-duck chief executive.
Twice before Tew has recommended a "rationalised" Air New Zealand Cup, only to be scuppered by the board. Asked if he would resign if he did not get his way today, Tew has said that he would more likely just take it on the chin.
Tew's image has softened over the years but he still comes across
as a man who prefers to use a bulldozer when a shovel will do. However, he could never be accused of not having the best interests of New Zealand rugby at heart. On this occasion he might have to endure a loss of face to ensure that legacy lives on.
Jock Hobbs - NZRU chairman
A more natural politician than Tew will ever be, Hobbs will no doubt be tasked with announcing the board's decision, but also putting a positive spin on it no matter which way it falls.
His powers of persuasion are legendary. In 1995 he managed to turn the All Blacks away from the Kerry Packer-backed World Rugby Corporation. Ten years later, he led the delegation that secured the 2011 Rugby World Cup when New Zealand appeared third favourite going into the final vote.
Interestingly, in his speech to the IRB he passionately emphasised the importance of rugby to the "whole of the country". You sense he would feel more uncomfortable than most at the prospect of alienating large chunks of fans with news of a cull.
Rob Nichol - Players' Association general manager
Has emerged, from all reports, as the joker in the pack. The importance of the new collective agreement between the NZRU and the NZRPA cannot be underestimated in all this. It will determine the contracting model which must work hand in hand with the competition structure.
At a recent players' conference it emerged that they were uncomfortable
with the shape of the NZRU-proposed six-team second tier competition. It has been Nichol's job to articulate that concern to the provinces, the franchises and the NZRU. In the meantime he has also been instrumental in coming up with another, more compelling (he believes) competition format for 2011 onwards.
The lawyers: There is an argument that the four culled teams should not take legal action against the NZRU, should the 10-6 option be ratified today, because it will be a costly exercise.
It is a facile argument. The unions culled believe they stand to lose far more through loss of sponsorship revenue, loss of playing pathways,
loss of television exposure and, ultimately, loss of support than they
could ever pump into lawyers' pockets.
"In my view, we owe it to our fans and we owe it to our age-group
players to go down that route if necessary," said Northland chairman
Rugby New Zealand 2011 Ltd: The 2011 World Cup will be played in front of a stadium of four million people, or so they reckon. The last thing Martin Snedden and his cohorts want is for a significant portion of those four million to feel disenfranchised from the game.
Rugby needs a feel-good factor in 2011, not a file of negative stories
about the sport in the months leading up to the tournament.
The All Blacks: Little credibility can be gained in a competition that loses its star power as the playoffs loom, as has happened in recent times when the All Blacks have left for the Northern Hemisphere tour.
There has to be a recognition now that the Air NZ Cup needs to be
about finding the next All Black.
The unions: The NZRU does not exist in a vacuum. It is there to serve the best interests of New Zealand's 26 provincial unions(which is why there is an irony when the phrase "living off handouts from the NZRU" is oft-mentioned). As the game has turned professional those "best interests" have become more disparate.
The best interests of Auckland and Canterbury, for example, who are operating in a market where they are competing for attention with the Blues and Crusaders, are far different than they are for Taranaki and
No matter which way they go on this, the NZRU is going to disappoint some of its unions; the trick has always been to minimise those disappointments.
The broadcasters: Sky Television has done its best to remove itself from the debate by not returning calls and generally acting as if
the restructure has nothing to do with it. Nobody is buying that, though, especially not when Murray Mexted told a business breakfast he had been stood down from the Air NZ Cup final after making public his distaste at the NZRU culling four teams.
Sources have told the Herald that Sky do not want seven games every weekend, much less the eight it would be asked to broadcast under the 10-6 proposal.
Mediaworks, owners of TV3, stole a march last month when chief executive Brent Impey announced it would be interested in picking up the games Sky did not want to broadcast, but only if the competition remained at 14 teams.
The sponsors: They have played an increasingly pivotal role. The
endangered unions have done a great job in recent weeks of mobilising their local sponsors to lobby the board.
In recessionary times the sponsorship dollar is cherished and the NZRU will be well aware that for every sponsor that walks away, there are no guarantees that another will step in to plug the gap.
The fans: The fans have a different way of voting – with their feet. In the provinces they gave the Air NZ Cup a big tick by turning up in numbers. Hawkes Bay, Southland and Manawatu in particular had strong support.
In the Super 14 franchise centres the news was not good. There were pathetic crowds in Christchurch and Wellington despite the fact they were the best two and, arguably, the most attractive sides in the competition.
When proponents of the status quo mention what a success the competition was this year, they tend to overlook that fact. But it's not the Canterburys and the Wellingtons of the world who are in danger of being cut.
In other words, it's the fans in so-called "minor" unions who stand to lose under the 10-6 split.
D-Day for provincial rugby has arrived.