New Zealand Rugby’s day of reckoning isn’t far off.
Whether it’s precipitated by South Africa’s potential withdrawal from Sanzaar is a moot point. The fact is the game in this country is now unable to sustain itself at any level and radical change is required.
It’s not good enough for NZR to bankrupt itself to meet the wage demands of its elite players. And it’s definitely not good enough to then reward the pampered few with rest weeks and sabbaticals.
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Community rugby in this country is dying of neglect at a time when some of our better All Blacks, despite annual salaries to $800,000 to $1 million, demand time off to keep them enthused.
Let’s begin with South Africa, who effectively bankroll the game in New Zealand. We’re tired of their Super Rugby teams and whatever mystique that Springboks v All Blacks games had is long gone.
Ask your average rugby fan if they’ll miss South Africa, or Super Rugby or The Rugby Championship and the answer would be no. Only, as stale as the whole thing’s got, it’s also paying our way.
Well, that’s not quite right. At its most recent Annual General Meeting, NZR forecast a $30 million loss over the next five years.
The model, as it exists now, is not working. Not for fans, not for clubs, not for players and surely not for NZR.
Private equity firm CVC Capital Partners are now about the most powerful force in the game, with financial stakes in the Six Nations, English Premiership, and Pro14 competitions. If they want southern hemisphere teams playing in Europe, for instance, there’s every indication they’ll get it.
In a New Zealand context, we really have come to the point where All Blacks should be selected from overseas clubs. We almost have anyway, with Matt Todd getting the nod while in Japan and Sam Whitelock soon to follow suit.
Let a wealthy private owner or corporation shoulder the burden of paying our best players. After all, as South Africa showed at last year’s Rugby World Cup, plucking players out of competitions elsewhere is no impediment to success.
We’ve been fed all sorts of jingoistic reasons why NZR can’t pick players from overseas. In the end, it’s just about broadcast money.
With no product, or at least an even more inferior one than what we have now, NZR have nothing to sell to TV. And no TV means we have no sport at all, basically.
There’s some terrible hot air being talked in Australia, as the existing television rights holder uses the other arms of its business to bully Rugby Australia (RA). The whole picture isn’t as bad as it’s being painted, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that RA are stuffed if they can’t secure a good TV deal.
As we are here in New Zealand.
Television has become almost the sole revenue stream for sporting bodies and that’s fine when demand’s high and the product’s good. But as much as we’d probably like one, no overseas broadcaster is going to pay big bucks for a competition purely comprised of New Zealand teams.
The marketers will tell you next year’s Super Rugby competition marks a return to the good old days. The much-maligned conferences are gone, baby, and it’s survival of the fittest.
Some of that’s true but it overlooks the fact we’re about to be served up half the diet of New Zealand derbies. Never mind that they’re the only games that pull a decent viewership on Sky or get punters through the gates.
Our Super teams can ‘theme’ games as much as they like, in an effort to generate bigger crowds, but New Zealand fans simply don’t want to come and watch the Stormers et al.
All of which brings us back to the start and this notion – however fanciful – that South Africa will depart Sanzaar for the comparative riches and novelty of the Six Nations. Frankly, you wouldn’t blame them if they did, nor miss them greatly.
But whether South Africa does or doesn’t go in 2026, or sooner, NZR has to change. The current model, with its reliance on TV money and emphasis on the All Blacks at the expense of all else, is no longer fit for purpose.
Better for NZR to be the ones to lead that change than find it suddenly forced upon them by South Africa or whoever else.
Eddie Jones warns against Six Nations expansion:
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