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Rugby facing many challenges

This is a perceptive excerpt from an unpublished book, the DJ Years, about the experiences and views of the late forthright former All Black rugby captain John Graham, who passed away four years ago this month. While the covid-stumblings between the New Zealand and Australian rugby unions are playing out, here is the first in a series of articles from the book. Sir John was headmaster of Auckland Grammar School for 20 years, New Zealand cricket team manager, University of Auckland chancellor, business director and mentor.

Tāmaki Makaurau - Rugby faces many challenges and unless clubs and provinces are strong and are seen as the core business of the NZ Rugby Union the game as it has been since the 19th century – our game for all shapes and sizes - will cease to be just that.

It is obviously already on a changing track. It is becoming a game for the elite player. Top schoolboys are identified, placed in academies and inducted into the details of the professional game – weight-training, diet, aerobic fitness, contracts, agents and other such delights.

Have we heard fun or enjoyment mentioned recently? These programmes often conflict with and take precedence over, club training and club coaches.

The ideal, in a perfect world, is to scrap Super rugby and establish a strong competitive provincial competition which is professional and provides the pathway to the All Blacks – with entry only through club participation.

Interestingly, the South Africans will not condone any changes to their Currie Cup competition, their equivalent of our old NPC competition or inter-provincial competition.

Winning sides, say the two top provincial sides, could play against the Currie Cup top two from South Africa and Australia if they can develop a similar local competition, or even top American or European club sides.

Even more importantly there could be a place here for Pacific and Asian teams. The key is to develop an internal New Zealand provincial competition that New Zealand supporters can identify with and in which all elite players can take part.

Clearly the Bledisloe Cup internationals should continue along with internal international tours by major countries and reciprocal tours overseas by the All Blacks.

We would not play the Springboks every year, nor tour Europe every year. This is not a nostalgic yearning for old days.

It removes meaningless competitions, which rugby supporters are finding less and less appealing; it places club rugby in its rightful place as the pathway to provincial rugby and should lead to a country-wide play-off to find the top club team each year.

It reduces the number of matches our top players must play and it ensures provincial rugby is restored to its rightful place at the heart of our rugby programme; and a far more meaningful international programme could be developed.

Importantly too it would return our All Blacks to the New Zealand public. They would be seen in their provinces and might even find out where their club rooms are located. Chances of this happening?

Not great, I would think, but it’s nice to dream about such a rugby world. The rugby public tend to agree though, judging by the empty seats in the stands, the hollow domestic competition, the financial failures and the loss of support nationwide. Significant and far-reaching changes are needed.

  • Kip Brook, Make Lemonade NZ

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