ANY GIVEN MONDAY
Over the past five weeks members of the Herald sports team and enthusiastic contributors have metaphorically travelled the length and breadth of the country to bring you our 1st XV of Classic Rugby Clubs.
What we didn't appreciate when we set off on the "journey" was its urgency.
This week, the final of five, will take readers from Hukerenui in rural Northland to the deep south and the clubs there will tell similar stories, no doubt, than many others have in various parts of these two islands: it's a struggle for mere survival out there.
Take Waitete for example. The Te Kuiti-based club inextricably linked to perhaps the most famous surname in New Zealand rugby – Meads – was precariously close to not being able to field a team after the country's original Covid-related lockdown expired.
Committee member Jason Church said it was only the fact that nearby Benneydale's Bush United club fell over that allowed Waitete to pick up some extra players to continue with some comfort.
Church pointed to the fact that three neighbouring teams – Waitete, Piopio and Waitomo – were effectively fighting for the same dwindling pool of players every year. It wasn't that long ago that Te Kuiti itself had three rugby clubs.
Church's lament was not an exclusive one. Nor are club rugby's issues a recent phenomenon: coronavirus has not created the problems but it has reinforced or hastened the parlous state of many.
Running concurrently to the series has been a number of reports on the commercialisation of secondary school sport, a phenomenon that cannot be reported without analysis of the overheated, overhyped and fetishised world of 1st XV rugby.
The synching of these stories was accident rather than design but it did lead to several thought boil-ups, one of which I have a hard time dismissing.
What if New Zealand's professional rugby teams could only contract players out of club rugby?
Could this one stone maim two birds: take the heat out of the ridiculous, increasingly elitist and ultimately damaging 1st XV arms race and; revive a sector of the sport that was once fundamental to many communities but is now dying?
It would not be a panacea. You could argue it would just shift the arms race from one ostensibly amateur sector to another and could even hasten the demise of clubs, particularly those in metropolitan centres who are fighting over a finite number of school leavers.
(As a counter, you could argue that places like Auckland have too many senior clubs and some would be better served as independent junior clubs aligned to nearby larger senior clubs.)
Nor is it suddenly going to turn depopulated rural areas, like Te Kuiti, into rugby hotbeds again.
Yet the benefits would seem to significantly outweigh the negatives.
Club rugby would get fresh impetus. Schools could no longer use relationships with professional teams as a recruitment chip, and their "professionalised" environments would no longer carry as much weight.
Clubs and schools could repair some of the fault lines that have developed between them over the last generation. Resources could be shared to keep those kids who are not on a fast-track to the 1st XV in the game beyond school.
Importantly, non-academically minded kids would not feel the need to remain at school to Year 13 (in far too many cases, Year 14) just to boost their rugby profile. It can't possibly hurt these kids to leave school and perhaps start a trade or find work while still living the dream of being a professional rugby player.
In that respect, anything that can break the imaginary link between televised 1st XV stardom and professional rugby can only be a good thing.
Playing club rugby would also add another notch in the maturity belt.
The majority of professional coaches and Players' Association reps sing from the same hymn sheet here. Those contracted straight out of school have a warped sense of identity and that often goes hand in hand with entitlement that can prove highly damaging.
That benefits nobody.
To repeat, the pandemic hasn't created club rugby's crisis but it has aimed a high-powered lamp upon it.
This is a chance for rugby's leaders and thinkers to see the light.
Sport is no different from many things in life where the eyes see what they want to see and the ears hear what they want to hear.
Just like Quentin Tarantino acolytes that refuse to acknowledge that his last film was, you know, a little boring, there are whole legions of New Zealand rugby fans conditioned to believe the way the game is played down here is not just the best way, but the right way.
It was easy to slip into that mode on Saturday night as the loosely titled South overcame a more accurately named North in a juiced-up All Blacks trial.
It was great fun, even sans crowd, and seemed to offer only confirmation that whatever the secret ingredient is that turns rugby from a morass of meaningless collisions into something approximating an art form, New Zealand has it.
Super Rugby Aotearoa had this effect, too. For the first time in years I felt engaged with Super Rugby and it was all to do with the quality of the footy, right?
Well, maybe… or maybe my eyes just saw what they wanted to see.
Wellington-based number crunchers Dot Loves Data asked themselves the same question, analysing pre-Covid Super Rugby, with peri-Covid Super Rugby Aotearoa to determine what was better and if you, like me, expected the latter to win in a landslide, it wasn't quite like that.
The most glaring hole in the argument for SRA is tries. In 48 Super Rugby matches before various lockdowns and travel bans there was an average of 6.9 tries per game. In the 19-game SRA, just 5.8. That is a significant climb down by anybody's measure.
New Zealanders have suffered enough World Cup heartbreak to realise tries aren't the only meaningful metric.
As long as the synthetic leather isn't being kicked out of the ball we can live with good defence occasionally trumping attack.
Yet the ball was kicked more in SRA. Not significantly (37.5 kicks per game as opposed to 36) but you start to wonder: less tries, more kicking – was SRA actually rubbish? Was the live sport void in my life so vast that I clung to SRA like a life-raft in an ocean of despair?
As the Dot data suggested, the key to SRA's success was competitiveness. Nearly half the games – nine – were decided by seven points or less. Pre-Covid Super Rugby was far more lopsided, with just 19.5 per cent of matches being decided by a converted try or less.
If the definition of a blowout is more than two converted tries, then only two SRA matches suffered this fate compared to close to 50 per cent of Super Rugby matches.
If the competitiveness was significantly better, so was the continuity. There were fewer scrums per game (10.3 v 13.2), more rucks (166.8 v 153.2), more passes (292.1 v 269.1) and more offloads (17.9 v 15.1). There was more tackling (288 attempts v 277) and better tackling (85 per cent accuracy v 83 per cent).
All this goodness seemed to be distilled into the North v South match. It was appropriately loose for a game between two bodgied up teams but with the requisite tension to elevate it beyond festival rugby.
It gave me some comfort. Even though I believe the best All Black 23 would succumb to the best England 23 on neutral territory six out of 10 times at the moment, down here we still play rugby the "right way".