Rugby doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel. Particularly not here in New Zealand.
It was meddling with a sound model that got the game into its current predicament and it will be going back to what worked before that can fix it.
Pandemic or not, SANZAAR was stuffed. The member unions were going broke and fewer and fewer people wanted to watch Super Rugby and The Rugby Championship.
It’s 2013 since South Africa played a test at Eden Park. That’s right. Like Argentina, New Zealand have afforded the Springboks also-ran status, shipping them off to Wellington and Christchurch and Albany instead.
Our most storied, and allegedly respected, foe didn’t rate a game at the All Blacks’ Eden Park fortress. They were second-tier and shunted off to smaller venues accordingly.
Mickey Mouse games and made up teams won’t make rugby profitable again and they certainly won’t re-engage fans either.
Familiarity bred contempt where All Blacks v Springboks games were concerned. We staged them so often, that people had enough.
Let’s not rush to play hybrid union and league games either or North v South, Possibles v Probables or conscript the SANZAAR sides to some locked-down location in Sydney for an abbreviated Rugby Championship. And let’s definitely not run Super Rugby in conjunction with it, as SANZAAR chief executive Andy Marinos has suggested.
New Zealand Rugby (NZR) are never going to get a better opportunity to reclaim ownership of their game and reconnect with people left behind in the rush to resource the All Blacks.
Wage demands were bankrupting NZR. And even on $1 million a year, players still wanted time off or lucrative sabbaticals elsewhere. You’d think the least they could do for a million bucks was actually turn up for work every day.
NZR have a few choices in front of them now, including putting people in harm’s way to make a quick buck, as our friends from the NRL appear hellbent on.
That will satisfy a few existing deals and get money flowing again, but it’s a stop-gap measure.
Another would be to say to the millionaires, or wannabe millionaires, among the playing group: All the best. Go try your luck overseas, where they live cheek-by-jowl and the coronavirus mortality rate dwarfs ours here.
NZR cannot sustain their current costs and if private owners elsewhere want to play our elite players a fortune, let them. And if that means players are picked for All Blacks duty from overseas, then it’s a small price to pay for keeping rugby in this country afloat.
Club rugby was dying here. Beyond premier level club competitions and some secondary school grades, we were all going 10 a-side with uncontested scrums.
NZR’s independent report recommended things like contracting schoolboys straight to Super Rugby and all-but doing away with the provincial and club game.
Why? Well, lack of players for starters. Although what that actually means is an inability to engage with the public.
Not to mention a lack of love and resources, given every spare buck was ploughed into trying to satisfy the wage demands of our best players.
Who knows when people will be able to travel freely between nations, or even want to. Until then test rugby has to be out of the question.
And, besides, we’d grown tired of the foes we were repeatedly matched up against anyway.
NZR could work wonders simply by, at the safe and respectful time, making all of our players available to play rugby. No rests, no sabbaticals, just a game every week.
It needn’t be solely at franchise level, either. How much would our battling clubs benefit from having a few All Blacks and Super players make a handful of appearances? What would that not only do for the coffers, but for towns and suburbs trying to get back on their feet after COVID-19?
So many of us love rugby, but our connection to it is at community level or through the players of the past. Men we watched playing club and provincial footy, men who had jobs outside of rugby and who were – at least to a degree – men we felt we could relate to.
We have an established and meaningful framework for rugby. We have clubs and provinces that not just fans are attached to, but players as well. We don’t need to dream up new teams or new competitions; we just need our best players to actually play.
If that’s a chore for our All Blacks or they insist on making a million a year, then they can go. The game – in every sense of the word – can no longer afford to pay them the money they’ve been on. At least not if we want community and provincial rugby too.
No-one wants to watch the Reds and Bulls and Sunwolves anymore. We want to see the best New Zealand players pitted against each other and, by dint of these unique circumstances, we can go back to that.
And, by happy coincidence, NZR will also be able to pay for it – and fund all the other levels of the game – by bringing wages down. A salary of $200,000 is still an absolute fortune by New Zealand standards and more than fair for playing rugby.
This pandemic has given us a chance to look at what’s essential and what’s not and it’s very hard to argue that giving $800,000-plus to an All Black is money well spent.
So let’s not dream up ways to keep these blokes in the fashion to which they’ve become accustomed. Let’s not keep pretending we can’t get enough of Super Rugby and The Rugby Championship.
Let’s instead return to a model that we once liked very much, that reflected our nation and its values and which, just as importantly, we were able to pay for.
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