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Regional rivalry scrapped for quality

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Super Rugby's regional rivalry has been sacrificed for the greater good and the Highlanders have been the main benefactors

Super Rugby has copped its fair share of criticism over the last few years.

Whether it’s complaints about a lack of competitiveness or issues with the needlessly complex draw, the Southern Hemisphere’s flagship competition attracts comments from all corners of the globe.

One problem which has existed since the inaugural competition in 1996, however, is the lack of identity that exists in the New Zealand franchises.

When the competition first launched, the five Kiwi sides were formed from the nation’s existing provinces.

Despite the fact that New Zealand’s northernmost team incorporated Northland, Auckland and Counties Manukau, however, it was only the Auckland moniker that was attached to the franchise’s name – and thus the Auckland Blues were born.

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It was the same country-wide, with Waikato, Wellington, Canterbury and Otago preceding the Chiefs, Hurricanes, Crusaders and Highlanders, respectively.

Whatever thought went into the franchise names (and let’s face it, it obviously wasn’t the brightest people who dreamed up with the Crusaders), the decision to align the five sides with the five biggest rugby unions in the country was ultimately an evermore absurd plan that alienated many fans outside of the major provinces.

It wasn’t long before the geographical identifiers were dropped from the franchise names, but the damage was already done.

Still, at least the franchises themselves were primarily populated from within the region, with only a few extra players drafted in who hadn’t been picked up by their home franchise.

That all changed in 2011, when the previous contracting model was thrown out the window and franchises were able to contract players from across the country, regardless of which province they were contracted to.

Some teams were quicker to adjust than others, but it’s had a lasting impact on the make-up of New Zealand’s squads.

In 2010, just 11 players were drafted into franchises that weren’t tied to their home province.

In 2019, the Highlanders squad alone contains 27 players that have been plucked from outside of either Otago or Southland. In fact, the Highlanders have selected at least one player from all 14 of New Zealand’s top-flight provinces.

Though not quite as extreme, it’s a similar story for the other four franchises.

There are two very obvious benefits to the newer system.

First of all, it ensures that the best 195 players are playing Super Rugby, regardless of what province they’re tied to.

Prior to 2010, players who represented provinces with considerable depth (such as Canterbury) could find themselves without a contract, even though they may have been a better player than someone selected for the Highlanders, for example.

The second benefit is that the Super Rugby teams are all of the highest quality.

When Super 12 first kicked off in 1996, there was a relative parity between the five franchises. Yes, the All Blacks were dominated by Auckland players, but there was still plenty of depth around the country as a whole.

That’s simply no longer the case, with the two Highlanders provinces, Otago and Southland, now having spent the last eight years in the championship division of the Mitre 10 Cup.

Would Jaime Joseph have been able to win the Super Rugby title in 2015 without the likes of Waisake Naholo, Aaron Smith and Elliot Dixon? Without a shred of doubt, the answer is no.

The issue, of course, is that teams have shed their identities even further. If over half the Chiefs players come from outside the Chiefs’ catchment area, then what motivation is there for a fan to get behind their local team?

Earlier this year, the Sydney Morning Herald revealed that Super Rugby stakeholders were keen on the idea of once again attaching regional names to the various teams to rebuild their lost identities, but this seems like a band-aid solution to the problem.

What should be more concerning, particularly for New Zealand fans (especially those with strong ties to the Highlanders), is the uneven distribution of young talent around the country.

The Highlanders franchise makes sense from a logistical point of view – it gives fans in the lower South Island a team to support. From a numbers point of view, however, the team’s existence makes little sense.

Over the last nine years, the New Zealand Under 20 side has used almost 260 players at world championships. Just 21 of those players have come from the deep south.

That’s less than half the number of players that have come out of the Crusaders catchment area, which is the second least represented at the U20 level.

Professionalism means that you don’t have to be producing players through your own junior systems – even the most naturally gifted athletes need to be nurtured once they hit the big leagues, and that’s something the Highlanders have done exceptionally well.

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Still, the fact that the Highlanders have to pull players from across the country to form a solid team should be cause for concern to supporters in Otago and Southland.

For Southlanders, in particular, it must be hard to get behind the Highlanders.

Just two players in the 2020 squad represented the Stags during this year’s Mitre 10 Cup, Manaaki Selby-Rickit and Ethan de Groot. There’s still a very realistic chance that Selby-Rickit’s contract will be terminated due to an assault charge, which leaves prop de Groot as the province’s sole representative.

Factor in that the Highlanders got rid of their maroon alternate strip a few years back (which was arguably one of the best jerseys in the competition) and that Invercargill won’t host any Super Rugby fixtures in 2020, and you start to wonder how committed the Highlanders actually are to New Zealand’s southernmost province.

This is simply the nature of professional sport, however.

The New Zealand franchises have strayed so far from their original provincial roots that reintroducing regional identifiers to the team names would be worse than a token gesture.

Stakeholders and fans simply have to face the fact that Super Rugby is no longer a tournament divided by regional lines.

No doubt, every player on that Highlanders roster will bleed blue and gold throughout the season, regardless of which province they represent.

The Mitre 10 Cup can scratch the provincial itch during the latter stages of the season when the All Blacks are off hunting international scalps. For the first half of the year, however, the best players get to show what they’re capable of – regardless of where they hail from.

WATCH: Former All Black flyhalf Andrew Mehrtens wants Super Rugby re-designed from the ground up.

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Super Rugby's regional rivalry has been sacrificed for the greater good and the Highlanders have been the main benefactors
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