COMMENT: By Michael Pulman of RugbyPass.com
Imagine a future where New Zealand's provincial competition, currently known as Mitre 10 Cup, is no longer the premier and professional grassroots competition in the country.
That's the very real possibility in the wake of New Zealand Rugby presenting their findings of a review into the state of the game in this country. It might be seen as premier in the brave new frontier NZR propose, but it darn sure won't be professional.
Provincial Unions are currently engaged in talks with the NZRU, and according to reports, they're all in a deep state of worry.
The very notion that the Mitre 10 Cup, or whatever it might be called in the future, may no longer be a professional competition, or at least treated as such, seems like a direct strike to the very heart of New Zealand's national sport.
There has been a lot made of what the McKinsey consultancy firm suggested to the NZRU, so forgive me if I miss a few things in what is still a developing story, but the general push as it pertains to grassroots/provincial rugby seems to be all about participation.
That's club rugby in particular, increasing the playing numbers in the towns and cities around the country.
In 2019, I spoke to a source in charge of developing the club game around several parts of the country.
That person told me that the entire club scene last year was "pitiful at best" thanks to a variety of factors, including participation, but also the culture embedded within club rugby right now. That culture is one of love, tradition and rivalry, but also an ever-growing frustration with the direction that the game is going in, typified by what's happening at the very top.
The club game, and Mitre 10 Cup in recent years, is simply forgotten about. Apparently, nobody really gives a damn, but the truth is they actually do. You just don't hear about it because the news is so flooded with what's happening at the pointy end.
Consider how little media coverage grassroots rugby gets in New Zealand. Think about how disconnected many in the rugby media could be from this part of the game.
What NZRU want is for the the provincial unions to administer the game at that level, which is sort of what happens already, with average results at best.
Identifying 'elite rugby players' and developing them, under this new direction, would be left to the Super Rugby franchises. In other words, a gigantic disconnect between the grassroots (where a lot of players come from) and the professional aspect of rugby.
Naturally, the All Blacks would sit above all this and remain the biggest driver, brand-wise, of the sport in this country.
So, nothing really changes at all, except for what happens at the local level. Apparently, the only way to grow the game and keep it sustainable is to increase participation, and as some reports have suggested, that increase in player numbers is more important than unions fielding teams capable of winning Mitre 10 Cup, the Farah Palmer Cup, or – even the big one – having a solid reign defending the Ranfurly Shield.
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Do these same administrators who are attempting to sell this new vision not understand that it's in these competitions where the very heartbeat of the game can be found? Do they not see from their offices that some of the passionate support bases that've remained loyal to provincial sides for generations possess more fandom than the average All Black fan that swipes their ticket on the way into Eden Park?
Despite what the optics at stadiums might tell you, the love for the game at this grassroots level is very much alive and well. It was especially alive and well back in 1995 just before the game went professional.
If you go out onto the street, you'll notice two things.
Firstly, if we are speaking about that die-hard rugby fan, a large part of this group feels consistently overlooked in the grand scheme of things because every single bit of promotion the game is getting these days leads to one place.
The All Blacks, in case you forgot.
What about the other teams that they love? What about getting behind those teams instead of effectively shutting off clear pathways for players in these grassroots teams to have a shot at the biggest level?
We've already seen that the model NZR might be proposing to provincial unions doesn't work.
Look no further than the Blues, the team we all love to get behind at the beginning of a season. Think about the number of star quality players that were simply missed by the Blues talent scouts in the region. Half of them you'll find playing for the Crusaders, the other half in Europe or Japan.
Putting Super sides in charge of managing the elite player identification process, in particular, could see more harm than good in the long run.
We'd all love to sit back in our armchairs and see our dreams of a bolter rise from the Mitre 10 Cup or Heartland Championship to make a shock debut for the All Blacks from seemingly nowhere but, under this new proposal, it's hard to see that being even remotely possible. Maybe, what this proposal could also see come to fruition, is the best players from college rugby (which at this point seems to have more attention from the NZRU than Mitre 10 Cup) be brought straight into the Super Rugby environment, going from schoolboy to professional rugby player with a nice University scholarship thrown in.
Yes, we need to grow participation in rugby – in that, the NZR are correct. However, if we lose the integrity of the provincial competitions in the process, what's it all really for? If we accept that the sport is broken into two tiers, where Super Rugby/All Blacks is the only professional entity which really means anything, then that leaves the game in almighty peril.
Fans don't deserve that, and nor do the young boys and girls who still dream to one day put on the black jersey. If we aren't careful, this new proposal could even further impact on them too, and what would that mean?