Bevan Sisson: Country rugby needs to find its 'DNA'

Rugby, and in fact sport, can duplicate many areas of life. One of these is a tendency to create buzzwords and slang to give the impression they are keeping up with the times.

One of sport’s latest is: “What is the team’s DNA”, which means, in real speak, what are they known for and what is their history. 

With rugby going through a recent review to figure out how the sport will look in the future, it is a good time for the grassroots game to find out what its DNA is. 

There is nothing more grassroots than heading to a club game, getting chips and a hotdog and then watching the juniors do ball duties after playing earlier in the day.

But how does country rugby’s representative season fit in the future? What is country rugby’s DNA?

At present, the local country rugby highlight is the annual Southbridge Shield game played between Ellesmere and North Canterbury. 

It has a great history – originally named the Delargey Shield, it was donated in 1922 by Pat Delargey, president of the Ellesmere sub union and owner of the Southbridge Hotel.

It was renamed the Southbridge Shield in 1932.

To hold this trophy has real prestige and, for this reason, it should be a standalone fixture played on King’s Birthday weekend.

The rest of the senior competition can then have the long weekend off. 

The town competition currently has the King’s Birthday round as a bye, so it would put the Southbridge Shield game as a standalone fixture. 

However, the end-of-year rep season for country teams is a long way from what country rugby is about.

There used to be Canterbury Country (best of Ellesmere and North Canterbury) which could test themselves against town’s Metro team but that was disbanded around 2017.

This has left country rugby in no man’s land. For the CRFU, country rugby is like the drunk uncle at Christmas – they’re not really sure what tactic to take. 

For the country-based players, is it really a motivation at the end of the year to play a mix of teams that don’t have any connection to country rugby?

At present, Ellesmere and North Canterbury will play Waitaha, the Cantabrians and Canterbury Pasifika, with a bye thrown in, then finish up with the important Southbridge Shield fixture.      

Ideally, country rugby would be a stand alone entity, but the CRFU would not want the two sub unions to break free from the Canterbury umbrella for many reasons, but none greater than the registration numbers in the country region are critical to CRFU funding. 

But is it time for the likes of Ellesmere/North Canterbury and their respective boards to look for greener pastures to ensure the future for their unions? 

It astounds me that our closest neighbour, Mid Canterbury, has only four division 1 teams but has a spot in the Heartland Championship when Ellesmere and North Canterbury have 16 teams between them and miss out.

A Canterbury Country team in the Heartland Championship would bring great benefits to the region, with local players getting an opportunity to play rep rugby closer to their DNA.

Or, allow these two sub unions to become part of Mid Canterbury’s Heartland selection without being classed as loan players, again allowing local country players an opportunity for meaningful representative rugby. 

It is in the interest of both North Canterbury and Ellesmere’s boards to look at what is best for their growing areas and not be used as a fill-in for the CRFU rep season.

  • Sisson is a former player, Lincoln, Lincoln University and representative coach and New Zealand age group selector