A few days after the All Blacks played Tonga at a full Waikato Stadium on a sunny Saturday afternoon – a 2.35pm kick-off designed to replicate World Cup conditions and perfect for fans of all ages - Super Rugby's governing body announced there would be earlier kick-offs next year. Brace yourselves people, but are Southern Hemisphere's rugby power brokers finally listening?
Where will it all end? I'll tell you where I think it should continue very shortly, but in the meantime let's dwell a little on what playing rugby earlier in the day means for the game here and those who are too young for what is now regarded as a traditional time for kick-offs at the elite level: 7.35pm.
Number one: The playing conditions are better. Yes, no one can guarantee the weather, but you're a damn sight more likely to get a dry ball on a winter's afternoon in New Zealand compared with a winter's night. The recent test in Hamilton reflected that, with the All Blacks running in 14 tries for a 92-7 victory. There were handling errors, yes, but not because of a wet ball.
Number two: Kids are engaged - they're more likely to be at the game and more likely to be watching it on television, or devices, for that matter. The importance of this in keeping them in the game is crucial. The last time the All Blacks kicked off an afternoon test here was during the 2011 World Cup. There are rugby-playing kids in New Zealand – six, seven and eight year olds - for whom last Saturday was their first ever experience of an afternoon test.
Number three: There is a sense of occasion that comes with an afternoon test that just can't be replicated by a night-time kick-off. Supporters plan their day around it. There is an excitement that builds as soon as you wake. Forget the old messages from New Zealand Rugby about afternoon tests clashing with club rugby; play club games earlier in the day like we used to, and heaven forbid, watch the test at the clubrooms afterwards. The club will be forever grateful for the financial boost.
Number four: Less obnoxious behaviour. It may have been the friendliness of the Tongan supporters, but I can't remember a more benign atmosphere before, during and after a test than the recent one. Often it's marred by heavy intoxication in the stands and streets afterwards: there's a good reason why grudge football derby matches in the United Kingdom kick off in the early afternoon and that's because there is less time for drinking alcohol.
The recently released 2020 Super Rugby schedule reflects a change in thinking from Sanzaar, and that's almost certainly down to feedback from supporters. In New Zealand, all night games will start 30 minutes earlier at 7.05pm. That half an hour is more significant than it sounds because suddenly night games are more accessible to a lot more people. In Australia, most games will kick off at 7.15pm local time.
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In that same spirit of conceding a little to the demands of loyal fans, this is something that should be continued by New Zealand Rugby, who are in the middle of negotiating a new broadcasting deal.
Here's the big pitch: Make it mandatory for broadcasters to agree to at least one afternoon test a year in New Zealand.
Sky Television are the leading contenders to retain the contract, and their new chief executive Martin Stewart has already made it clear that winning back the goodwill of subscribers, many of whom have felt marginalised by the previous direction of the company, was his big priority. Agreeing to this could help significantly with that. And, who knows, he may even be able to help convince New Zealand Rugby it's the right thing to do.
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