Time regional New Zealand fights back for provincial rugby’s sake

Logan Savory is an Invercargill-based journalist for Stuff.

OPINION: Lindsay Beer loves rugby. Or to be more precise he loves provincial rugby.

For 22 years – before the pandemic hit – Beer missed just two Southland Stags games; both home and away.

One of those two games was because of work commitments, the other was due to a delayed flight in 2016.

Beer has covered the length of the country many times over to watch his beloved Southland team play live. In later years his wife Bronwyn joined him.

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He doesn’t watch Super Rugby though. Beer has little to no interest in the competition.

Provincial rugby is what connects him to the sport, and he isn’t an isolated case. Similar stories are littered throughout the country in provinces such as Taranaki, Northland, Manawatu, Hawke’s Bay etc.

Passionate Taranaki rugby fan Mike Morresey.

Andy Jackson/Getty Images

Passionate Taranaki rugby fan Mike Morresey.

Andrew Dixon is another of those stories from Southland. He hasn’t missed a home game at Rugby Park in Invercargill since the late 1970s.

He remembers his father taking him to watch Southland beat Australia 10-7 in 1978. He’s been hooked on rugby ever since.

The prospect of Dixon watching Southland play Australia again is, let’s be honest, zilch. But Dixon’s still got the NPC to view his team. For now at least.

The provincial season is the highlight of the rugby calendar for Dixon. New Zealand’s premier professional competition, Super Rugby, not so much.

“I support the Highlanders, but I wasn’t born a Highlander. I was born a Southlander,” Dixon says.

It’s bigger than rugby. The Southland games at Rugby Park provide an avenue each year for Dixon to catch up with mates, share a laugh, and cheer on their team together.

What hurts his crew is the annual beating of the drums – most often at the start of each season – around our national provincial rugby competition apparently being dead and of no use anymore.

From left, Shaun Yeo, then Stag Ben Nally, and Andrew Dixon with the Ranfurly Shield after Southland's 2011 victory. [File photo].

stuff

From left, Shaun Yeo, then Stag Ben Nally, and Andrew Dixon with the Ranfurly Shield after Southland’s 2011 victory. [File photo].

The NPC requires some much-needed love, care and attention, but for many rugby folk in provincial New Zealand, labeling it dead is hyperbole.

Rugby Southland has sold all its corporate boxes for the 2022 season and increased its commercial revenue from the previous year. There’s got to be life left, surely.

Stuff rugby writer Paul Cully is the latest to question the NPC’s existence, in its current state at least. He’s suggested a radical change.

What needs to be pointed out before I go further is I have huge respect for my fellow Stuff stable mate. I’m a regular reader of Cully’s work.

I agree some tough questions need to be asked around the NPC. What I can’t agree with is effectively throwing our national competition on the scrap heap by turning it into an age-restricted competition.

The option Cully has floated is to make the NPC a pure development vehicle – an under-23 competition, for example, complemented by three or four ‘overage’ players.

“Make it a shorter, sharper window for the best young players in the country to compete against each other,” he suggests.

Queue the sights. What would really be achieved by doing this? Apart from devaluing our national provincial competition further and raising the middle finger to most 23-plus-year-olds who have a desire to play for their province.

Cully points out that Super Rugby recruitment doesn’t wait for the NPC anymore. Frustratingly he’s right.

But there is more to the sport of rugby than Super Rugby. Just ask Beer who loves the NPC but has next to no interest in Super Rugby.

Just ask 24-year-old Wrey’s Bush farmer Joe Robins who has played his way into provincial selection with Southland. He may never play Super Rugby, but that’s okay, isn’t it?

Southland farmer Joe Robins is a hard-working member of the Southland Stags' squad. [File photo].

Robyn Edie

Southland farmer Joe Robins is a hard-working member of the Southland Stags’ squad. [File photo].

I’m risking doing the proverbial in my own nest with my next point, but here goes.

In recent years some media outlets have slashed their coverage of provincial sport. Dedicated sports journalists living in the provinces are now scarce, bordering on extinction, to be honest.

Provincial sport is now not a priority for some media outlets. Those organizations have every right to make those commercial decisions. Media companies do not exist as a promotional arm for provincial sport.

But what we have been left with is a cast of sports journalists largely based out of the five cities that are home to New Zealand Rugby’s five Super Rugby teams. And to keep the peace, I’ll point out those sports journos do a great job of covering what they do.

But they aren’t brushing shoulders with the Lindsay Beers or Andrew Dixons of the rugby world. They are also more likely to come across rugby administrators whose lives revolve around Super Rugby and view the NPC in some part as a nuisance.

They don’t see the buzz that can be created in regional cities on the back of some encouraging results from its provincial team on the national stage. They don’t see the kids that become attached to rugby through the NPC.

Long-serving Southland Stags fan Lindsay Beer. [File photo].

Robyn Edie

Long-serving Southland Stags fan Lindsay Beer. [File photo].

What they do see is an empty Sky Stadium in Wellington or Eden Park in Auckland and then declare that no one cares.

Well, I’m telling you, in other parts of the country a lot do care.

There’s an issue of an oversupply of rugby in places like Auckland, Wellington, etc. It’s another warning sign that cities outside the five Super Rugby bases are being plunged further into rugby’s darkness.

As those in the big five cities wipe their mouths with napkins while declaring, ‘no more, I’m full’, the rest of the country feeds off New Zealand Rugby’s crumbs, in terms of a rugby experience with some sort of profile attached.

Let’s take Wellington for example.

All of the Hurricanes’ home games were played in the capital this year.

Following that – in the space of just five days in July – Wellington hosted Ireland twice. There was a showdown against the Maori All Blacks on a Tuesday, before five days later a test match against the All Blacks on Saturday.

Playing that Maori All Blacks-Ireland fixture in a city such as Napier or Palmerston North would have been glorious. Instead, making that sort of thing happen seems to now be filed into the too-hard basket, or a decision made only with a money-first outlook.

McLean Park in Napier, the home to Hawke's Bay and the Ranfurly Shield.

John Cowpland / www.photosport.n

McLean Park in Napier, the home to Hawke’s Bay and the Ranfurly Shield.

Further alienating people in regional New Zealand by cramming the NPC into a “shorter, sharper window” and adding an age restriction to it, I’m not sure does anything to fix rugby’s woes.

It’ll simply heighten New Zealand Rugby’s struggling attempt to ensure the sport remains our national game.

Rugby needs a meaningful national competition that reaches all parts of the country, not just five cities.

What has become obvious is if a meaningful provincial rugby competition is going to survive, it’s now up to those outside that big five to fight for it.

It’s partly what prompted me to pen this piece; to at least provide an alternative view on behalf of those living in regional New Zealand who love the NPC.

I agree changes are needed, but they need to be made in an attempt to enhance the competition rather than devalue it.

Rugby’s decision-makers need only to take a peek sideways at a fellow sporting code, basketball, to see what can be achieved by searching for improvements with a fan-first approach.

The National Basketball League has introduced a true competitive balance system that has spread the best talent throughout the competition. The once two-paced league made up of the haves or have-nots has transformed into the closest it’s been in the NBL’s 41-year history.

And the fans have responded.

Shaun Willett in action for the Taranaki Airs in New Zealand's National Basketball League in front of a sold-out crowd in New Plymouth.

VANESSA LAURIE/Stuff

Shaun Willett in action for the Taranaki Airs in New Zealand’s National Basketball League in front of a sold-out crowd in New Plymouth.

All fans can now genuinely believe their team is a title contender at the start of the season. On top of that, there’s been a push to improve the game-day experience and fan engagement.

What has followed is record crowd numbers, growing commercial revenue, and an estimated $7.5m five-year commercial deal between Sky and Basketball NZ with every game now screened live.

The NBL currently sits at a 10-team league with teams in Bay of Plenty and Queenstown to be added in 2024. Further expansion is expected.

It’s a sporting competition that reaches most parts of the country and sits in pole position ready to pounce if there’s any further watering down of New Zealand’s provincial rugby competition.

The first call New Zealand Rugby needs to make is to former NBL boss Justin Nelson to help them come up with a proper competitive balance strategy to spread the talent further. At the same time there needs to be a fan-first mantra implemented, as the NBL has done.

The glory days of All Blacks lining up in the NPC might be gone, but disregard the wider role the NPC plays in connecting people to rugby at your peril.

Giving up on provincial rugby, and effectively cutting off half the population, would only speed up any declining rugby interest. It’s time regional New Zealand pushes back on the sentiment that provincial rugby’s future is limited.

Long live the NPC.

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