It is not clear that the NZRFU fully grasps the extent of the crisis facing rugby in New Zealand as Super 14 approaches, writes Huw Turner on www.scrum.com.
This is a crisis partly attributable to the continuing failure of the All Blacks at the World Cup, but is principally due to the manner in which the latest abject failure was preceded by the gross mismanagement of the game in New Zealand. The effect of this has been to alienate vast swaths of grassroots support and interest in the game.
Graham Henry’s reconditioning programme was a disaster. It removed the country’s top players from both Super 14 2007 and the Air New Zealand Cup ( formerly the NPC ), involved a rotational All Black selection policy which then produced a squad World Cup squad horribly under-prepared which then delivered the worst-ever All Blacks’ performance at a World Cup.
This obsession with the World Cup would have been justified with victory in France, in fact would not have been called an obsession but astute planning. But countries like Argentina proved to be astuter and even England, as much as one might criticise their style, still managed to reach the final after being in disarray in the early stages of the tournament.
New Zealand rugby followers have been treated disgracefully and have voted with their feet. Forced to witness Super 14 , Tri Nations test matches and their own domestic rugby programme without the best players they have found other things to do and think about. The administrators’ challenge for the immediate future, therefore, is to re-kindle interest in the game and to somehow create competitions which generate the same sort of commitment and passion as the Heineken Cup in Europe.
Which leads to another issue which won’t go away – the asset stripping of the New Zealand game. The Heineken Cup is a timely reminder of all the kiwi talent plying its trade overseas – Rush and Tito at the Cardiff Blues, Marshall, Holah and Tiatia at the Ospreys, Chris Jack, Luke McAlister, Aaron Mauger, Warren Gatland . . . . . .
It is a nerve-wracking exercise having to peruse and assess New Zealand’s five franchise sides shorn of the talent mentioned above – some still some way short of its prime.
The most significant and interesting development in the New Zealand close season has been the move of Ali Williams from the Blues to the Crusaders. Williams was one of the few All Blacks to enhance his reputation at the World Cup. Indeed, his test form has consistently belied the inconsistencies in his provincial form, but maybe the guidance of Robbie Deans will offer Williams the sort of stability that he spectacularly lacked at the Blues in recent times. With the return of Brad Thorn from Australian league , the need for Richie McCaw to exorcise his demons and the improved form of Mose Tuiali’i at the tailend of last season, the Crusaders’s forward pack should not lack dynamism. And this could be a breakthrough year for young blindside Kieran Read, surely an All Black in the not too distant future. Amongst the backs, Dan Carter has some ground to make up after a lacklustre World Cup, scrum half Andrew Ellis will want as much game time as possible and Stephen Brett is one to watch.
The country’s other southern franchise, the Highlanders, have fallen upon worryingly thin times. Otago’s home Air New Zealand Cup games were sparsely attended and early reverses will surely be reflected in the further erosion of the fan base. Depraved of big names like Carl Hayman and Anton Oliver ( both in Europe ) and Nick Evans ( who has moved back to the Blues ) the Highlanders look short of big names and proven performers at this level. Rookie coach Glenn Moore seems set for a tough season. Young Northland imports Daniel Bowden and Fetu’u Vainikolo are exciting prospects who have the skills and pace, respectively, to make an impact. But forward resources are likely to be stretched, a heavy burden likely to be placed on the shoulders of skipper Craig Newby, Jamie Mackintosh, Tom Donnelly and Hoani MacDonald.
Both Piri Weepu and Ma’a Nonu may feel, in retrospect, that it was not such a bad World Cup to miss out on. Along with fellow Wellingtonians Jerry Collins, Rodney So’oialo, Chris Masoe , Conrad Smith and Neemia Tialata, and Taranaki’s Andrew Hore, they form the core of the Hurricanes’ challenge, but there is abundant talent throughout the squad. Lock Jason Eaton, certain to have been a part of Henry’s plans in France before injury cut him down, , Bernie Upton, John Schwalger and the Waldrom brothers offer plenty of experience and toughness amongst the forwards, whilst Tane Tu’ipulotu, Cory Jane and Hosea Gear provide the pace and backline guile. One to watch here will be young winger Zac Guilford.
The Chiefs are similarly blessed. There is rugged forward experience in the likes of skipper Jono Gibbes, Tom Willis, Kristian Ormsby, Sione Lauaki and Liam Messam ; half back solidity in Brendon Leonard and Jamie Nutbrown and outstanding backline talent in Stephen Donald, Callum Bruce, Sosene Anesi, Mils Muliaina and Sitiveni Sivivatu. With the number of All Black midfield defections, all eyes will be on the form of Richard Kahui, whose pre-season form has been encouraging. Coach Ian Foster has a wonderful squad at his disposal, but will need to deliver the goods , with an underachieving franchise, to stave off those critics who feel he was lucky to get another chance in place of the departed Warren Gatland.
The Blues, for whom former Highlanders coach Greg Cooper will assist David Nucifora, should be prominent again this season. It would be good to see Joe Rokocoko, Isaia Toeava and Nick Evans get as much game time as possible, but they will be pushed by young prospects George Pisi, David Smith and Rudi Wulf. Amongst the forwards, Daniel Braid, Troy Flavell and Jerome Kaino will be keen to regain favour with the All Blacks’ selectors. Young Blues to look out for this year are Benson Stanley and Bronson Murray.
Early season performances will be as interesting for their form guide as for the amount of interest the New Zealand public shows.Tweet