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David Miller: Why Rugby is so Strong in the South

David Miller Online
Why Rugby is so Strong in the South

The South Island, or should I say Christchurch, is once again in the grip of rugby fever. The Super 12 final is less than four days away and Christchurch is hosting the final for the first time. The only other New Zealand side in the semi finals were the Highlanders. If the Crusaders win it will be the first time that a champion side has gone through the entire competition unbeaten. I do admit that since my column started back in 2000 I have not always been the most serious of rugby supporters. For one thing, I was born in England. This means that I am from the country that boasts of inventing virtually every sport on the planet but has long since been completely crap at them all – rugby included. As well as this, I still have not fully grasped the rules - and not through lack of trying. But there is no denying that for the past five years Canterbury rugby has not only enjoyed success on the field but has succeeded in building a fanatical fan base that includes almost everyone who lives here. It has now reached the point that when one season ends, all anyone is concerned about is looking to the day when the next one starts. The City Council doesn’t determine what goes on down here but the local Rugby Union. So why is this? Why are Christchurch and the South Island are so enslaved to rugby?

The reasons for this are both on the field and off it. The first is the development of the elite, also known as the Crusaders Development Programme. This policy has evolved since the game turned professional and I believe it was one of the great lessons of sport in general. So often when a team is at the peak of its powers on the field, the authorities feel reluctant to blood new talent and tend to stick with the tried and tested combinations. What happens is that a number of key players either retire or start to lose their edge at the same time. This is the mistake Auckland made after their dominance ended in the mid nineties. Their greats retired and the void has so far been too hard to fill. Canterbury has not made that mistake.

The key has been to scour the ranks of club rugby and place the best into the Crusaders Development Programme. Our heroes of tomorrow are taken from the comfort of their clubs by the authorities and placed into camp. Here they are conditioned to handle the pressure of the big game, trained to peak fitness, taught to react in a split second when a crucial decision must be made and, above all else, taught to win. For example, last weekend Andrew Merhtens kicked a crucial drop goal under pressure. Ten minutes later his protégé and heir apparent Aaron Mauger did the same thing to secure the game. Place Mauger along side the likes of Richard McCraw, Sam Broomhall and Ben Blair and one can rest assured that the Canterbury trophy cupboard will remain fully stocked for many seasons to come.

The second reason is indoctrination of the young, also known as the “Take a Kid to Footie” promotion. An authority’s survival often lies with the young and the next generation of supporters and warriors. Various ruling bodies have demonstrated this many times throughout history and the Rugby Union has recognised this. It allows for parents to take their youngster to the game for a heavily reduced price thus its reach crosses into the younger generations. Not only does this fill the stadium quicker but it also allows our young to have a glimpse at what might happen if they play well at the local domain. It also allows parents a glimpse of early retirement if their young lad learns to kick goals from the sideline, throw a useful dummy or win a tighthead against the feed. After all, the Super 12 does not pay too badly.

The third reason is total control of the media, also known as the “make sure the league is not featured in a prime location in the newspapers or the lead item on the sports news on television” policy. Once again history has shown that publicity can be the fuel that drives an authority’s power. The policy is to guarantee the public are bombarded with your messages and ideas to the point where they know of nothing else. This involves making full use of all forms of media such as radio, television, the Internet and making sure your message and troops are splashed across the regional newspapers front page and providing at least three pages of match analysis and opinion in the sports sections. It is almost impossible to drive around Christchurch without seeing a billboard or a sign advertising the Crusaders and they have even featured on our cartons of milk. Already the media here is talking of the ‘final crusade’ and this will only intensify as the week progresses. If we win the Christchurch public can be assured of a souvenir lift-out section next Monday morning with their daily paper devoted to the crusade. I cannot wait.

The Crusaders are on course to claim their fourth title in five years and it will take a super human effort by the Brumbies to stop them. So the final note is this. Who cares if you think what is happening in the Middle East is slightly more important than events at Jade Stadium? Who cares if you are upset at the Prime Minister faking some paintings and think it is serious enough to phone the police? Who cares if you prefer league or soccer or even have to suffer watching and supporting the Blues or the Canes? Saturday’s final will be fantastic and it will be Red n Black all the way. After all, success breeds success. That is the real reason.

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