27 Oct

Can A Great Competition Get Better
by Tracey Nelson
27 Oct 2009

There are many reasons to love our domestic rugby competition, the Air New Zealand Cup. We also saw that the magic still exists when Southland took the Ranfurly Shield off Canterbury last week. But with the shadow of demotion facing four of the fourteen sides, is there a way to make this competition even better?

History was made in the last round with Southland lifting the Shield off Canterbury – a feat all the more remarkable because it had been 50 years since they last held the Log of Wood. If any grey-suited NZRU member had any doubts over what the Shield means to New Zealand rugby, they needed only to look at the two sides when the final whistle blew on Thursday night. One side had their arms held aloft to the heavens with many players actually leaping in the air with delight, whilst the other side stood as one with heads downcast and shoulders sagged.

Likewise, the week before we had seen an epic game where the lead see-sawed and it was only the individual contributions of All Blacks Richie McCaw and Dan Carter that saw Canterbury get up over Hawkes Bay. Hawkes Bay, at that stage with no current All Blacks in their side, had pushed a team boasting eight All Blacks to the very limit before being denied a potential draw at the final whistle. But there in lies the rub.

The All Blacks have, for all intents and purposes, been withdrawn from the ANZC and were it not for the five week gap between the end of the Tri-Nations and the start of the end of year tour to the northern hemisphere, they wouldn’t feature in the competition at all. But because they need match time and a gallop before going on tour, they are thrust back into the competition for a couple of weeks in October – around weeks 11 and 12, which is basically coming into the business end of the draw as places for the semis are starting to heat up.

It seems inherently unfair that teams like Northland, Counties, Bay of Plenty, Hawkes Bay, Manawatu and Tasman have a 23-man squad that play week in and week out, with the associated player/injury management required for the duration of a 13 week competition (and longer if you make the play-offs), yet teams like Canterbury, Wellington, Auckland and Waikato essentially have a squad of 28+ players that they can rotate and rest because of All Blacks popping in to play a couple of games just at the point of the competition where player wear and tear starts to mount up.

If we must have the ABs coming back in to play the odd game here and there, despite the fact that overall the ANZC is apparently a bit beneath them to play more than two or three games because they need a rest after playing six games over a three month period, then perhaps the following rules should apply:

1. Any province can nominate up to three of their current All Blacks (ie. have played in the Tri-Nations) to turn out for them during the comp.

2. The remaining All Blacks from that province go into a pool that provinces who have no All Blacks at all (eg. Counties, Manawatu, Northland etc) get first dibs at – and they can pick up to three All Blacks. Teams with major injuries to key players/positions get first choice of the pool to fill that position.

3. Any remaining ABs in the pool can then be picked up by any other province not already fielding 3 All Blacks.

So teams like Northland, Counties, Manawatu with no All Blacks get 3 from the pool. A team like Southland with just one All Black would be eligible to get two from the pool.

Using this structure All Blacks would still get some game time prior to an EOYT, but it wouldn’t create the huge imbalances you see – for example, when Canterbury took on Hawkes Bay with eight All Blacks, because we all know that without those All Blacks Canterbury would have lost that game. It would also mean that the smaller provinces and the players would get the benefits of having some All Blacks spending time with them.

Given the the NZRU sold out our domestic competition by agreeing to extend the Tri-Nations into September and insist on treating ABs as demi-gods when it comes to participating in provincial rugby, then I think it’s only fair that they should be dispensed in equal amounts into the competition to compensate. As it stand at the moment it makes it a farce that the big guns suddenly overtake the so-called minnows solely due to having their All Blacks back en masse for a few games.

It could also potentially sort out the salary cap problem too, because a province would then only ever be covering the salary of three All Blacks – and if a minnow province felt that they couldn’t afford All Blacks for a couple of games then they wouldn’t have to pick them out of the pool.

Food for thought?

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