Exclusive: Phil Gifford details New Zealand Rugby's plans for the immediate future of the game, as a rush to get a competition underway this year begins
Super Rugby tossed into the dustbin of history. As many as eight professional New Zealand teams playing in a competition, that may nor may not involve Australia or Fiji, with a name that will be as far away from "Super Rugby" as possible. No more long distance flights to play in Buenos Aires or Durban. And a huge arm wrestle over provincial rugby.
That, according to reliable sources inside New Zealand Rugby, is the immediate future for the game in this country.
At the heart of the plans, to be thrashed out in a hurry in the hope of some rugby being played before the end of the year, is a determination to keep All Blacks playing in New Zealand. "We don't want the Brazil model," an NZR official told me this week. "Where all your top players are in clubs offshore. We're determined to keep as many of our All Blacks here as we can."
Super Rugby, it's now conceded at NZR, has been a wounded, dying beast in this country since 2007, when our best 24 players were unavailable for the first two months of Super Rugby, but instead were working on All Blacks conditioning programmes.
Weird expansions, to Japan and Argentina, and contractions, like dumping the Western Force, have been singled out by some commentators as the causes of Super Rugby's malaise.
But in New Zealand they were just distractions.
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The fact is Super Rugby here was screwed in 2007.
The withdrawal of the best All Blacks was not only a disaster on the field, where many of the returning players weren't match hardened and suffered injuries, but also a slap in the face to fans, who had been told for 11 years they were watching the best club competition in the world, and now saw it used as just a feeder to test rugby.
The number of people watching Super Rugby on Sky television plummeted by a disastrous 29 per cent. In the key area of males aged 25 to 54, average viewing figures for the top 10 games dropped from 101,700 in 2006 to 68,800 in 2007. The number of fans lost has never been fully won back.
It's taken a pandemic to set an upheaval in train, but there will be a new competition anchored on our five existing franchises, which could expand to be the Superb Six, the Magnificent Seven, or the Great Eight. Hopefully some marketing gurus will find better names than mine.
The idea of strong New Zealand teams playing local derbies every weekend has an obvious appeal.
Would it be even stronger if the teams were based on rugby's provinces, some of whom have been established and known for well over a century?
Probably, but the demands for a return to tribalism in our rugby seem to be heard mostly from Auckland critics, who were silent when, in the early days of Super Rugby, the Blues were filling up Eden Park and winning titles. The worse the Blues got, the more tears started to be shed for the good old days when Auckland made Eden Park a provincial fortress, and the players drove trucks and pushed pens in offices when they weren't playing.
I hate to bring reality into the conversation, but those days went out the window when players started being paid, and that genie will never go back in the bottle.
In professional sport, which rugby has been for 24 years, fans around the world want winners, and they want stars, and they want success, more than they want geographical identification.
You've only got to look at America, still the world's professional sport epicentre. As just one example, the Dodgers baseball team had been the pride of Brooklyn for 75 years before being sold, moving to the opposite coast, and becoming the Los Angeles Dodgers, where, since 1958, they've been reinvented as the hometown team.
Still, the hardest call, and the most bitter discussions, in our rugby now will be over exactly what happens to what is currently the Mitre 10 Cup, which would continue to be played after the new top tier professional club competition was over.
"We can't, and we won't, turn provinces like Canterbury into fully amateur Heartland sides," an NZR insider says. "But we do need to work out just how many professional teams New Zealand can afford."
Those discussions with the provinces are likely to be brutal, but, like so many of our businesses have found, ugly issues have to be addressed in a Covid-19 age.
Waving goodbye to All Blacks and wishing them well offshore, relying on old school loyalties to drag fans in, and expecting players to be happy if they only get petrol money, are as misguided as the idea that having 18 teams in Super Rugby would somehow make the competition more attractive.
Finding some middle ground between clubs, provinces, and the All Blacks, is the biggest challenge the game has faced here since Kerry Packer tried to buy southern hemisphere rugby in 1995. Finding money of their own saved the All Blacks for the NZRU then. In 2020 the task is infinitely more complex, but it has to be tackled. What's decided in the coming months will shape the structure and the soul of rugby here for the foreseeable future.
Castle made of sand
The great Australian comedic character Sir Les Patterson, the burping, boozing, groping, invention of the brilliant Barry Humphries, once said of a politician that he was "so low he could parachute out of a snake's bum, and freefall before he hit the ground".
Sir Les comes to mind when considering the tawdry treatment dished out to Raelene Castle, whose role as CEO of Rugby Australia was always under fire from the likes of Alan Jones, the king of Sydney talkback radio.
When Castle was appointed in 2017, Jones said, "Raelene Castle? Give me a break. You can't be serious about handing the game over to people like this. It's nonsense".
I'm guessing by "people like this" he meant: (a) Castle is a woman, a gender Jones has never liked very much; (b) a New Zealander; and (c) a former administrator of rugby league.
Throughout her time at Rugby Australia, Jones has been the most public face of the Castle bashers, using his bully pulpit of a huge rating show at 2GB to harass her as part of his wider campaign to make rugby more like it was when he was coaching the Wallabies in the 1980s.
Jones and Nick Farr-Jones became unlikely allies over Castle. Farr-Jones, as one of just two Australian World Cup winning captains, was by far the most notable name in the group of former national captains who went public with a letter calling for change at Rugby Australia.
But the most significant name was actually Phil Kearns. Self interest? You be the judge. Kearns, who heads an insurance brokerage when he's not expressing shock as a television commentator at every penalty that's ever been awarded against an Australian team, was the other leading candidate when Castle was chosen for the CEO's job three years ago.
Australian rugby at the top level, much like the game here, has an incestuous element (or, if you want to pretty it up, a family quality) to it. In New Zealand former All Blacks usually adhere to an unspoken code of not airing dirty linen in public. One All Black from the 1980s hasn't spoken to a former teammate for a decade because of the lambasting the old comrade had given a modern day All Black side.
What's interesting now is whether the Australian rugby establishment will accept the lack of decency behind Castle's exit, and look a lot further than one person being used as a scapegoat. Blasting Castle alone ignores the way a rugby union actually works.
Talking with Castle on NewstalkZB last week, (only, it transpired, a few hours before she resigned), she reiterated to Simon Barnett and myself that "the board signs off the strategy and the structure and we work towards that. I'm not on my own".
The huge question now in Australian rugby is that, with the game patently under enormous pressure that started to build long before Castle was on board, will there be the stomach for wholesale changes, not just the largely cosmetic move of appointing a new CEO?