Bevan Sisson: Dramatic change needed to fix unsustainable rugby landscape

When will New Zealand Rugby and the provincial unions realise the game isn’t the shining golden cloak of NZ sport? The landscape isn’t changing - it’s changed, got dressed and left the sheds.

The Players’ Association has laid down an ultimatum to change the governance or they will force an even greater disruption. 

Its chief Rob Nichol has put the blame squarely at the provincial unions for stopping the introduction of a new model as the unions struggle to keep control.

Rob Nichol. Photo: Getty Images
Rob Nichol. Photo: Getty Images
The NPC and the community game need to have a completely separate amateur body. This new body would realise it is unsustainable to fly around the country and stay in hotels and pay players, in what should be an amateur competition.

The salary cap for the NPC is $1.1 million with some unions reporting spending up to $1.4m – money that doesn’t need to be spent. That excludes coaches and support staff. 

The crowds don’t warrant it and the viewing audiences don’t justify it.

The competition format needs to change. 

One option could be a conference system with North and South Island conferences, with the winner of each conference playing in a final.

It should have a promotion-relegation component for something to aspire to. This could also open up the door for an extra Heartland team for the South Island to be introduced, such as Canterbury Country.

There will be many differing ideas on how a new format should look:
• Removing payments to players.
• No day training but after work sessions, with player and team reviews done online.
• They bus to and from games where they can, saving money on expensive flights. Look at the situation South Canterbury ended up with, missing out on a shield challenge due to the costs of flights, stopping players having a shot at the shield.
• Games played at parks with no television requirements, allowing them to be played at local domains for everyone to watch local players they identify with. The success of Canterbury v Taranaki last year at Rangiora Showgrounds proved it can be done.
• The Super Rugby franchises will have scouts looking at these games and there is still an opportunity for someone that has slipped through to get picked up by a franchise.

Now to the professional game. Let’s be honest, most of the top players have played minimal or any club rugby or even NPC.

Jamie Hannah on the charge. Photo: Getty Images
Jamie Hannah on the charge. Photo: Getty Images
Look at the case of young Jamie Hannah, ex-Christchurch Boys' High. He is a great young player with real ability. Straight out of high school and into the Crusaders Academy via Lincoln University.

His path has been Crusaders U20s, NZ U20s and then into the Crusaders. No NPC pathway for that young fella. Aaron Webb, the Crusaders Academy and talent ID manager, identified his class early, enabling him to be fast-tracked.

It does raise questions though.

What happens to the professional players between Super Rugby seasons? Could the Crusaders do a longer off-season tour to generate income, enabling them to trial fringe players and keeping those not involved in the ABs, NZ XV and U20s in meaningful rugby before the next Super season, while also creating much needed income?

With any change there will be issues, like where does the Ranfurly Shield fit in. Does it become an FA Cup style competition? Is a new format going to be manageable? Where does the women’s professional game sit? There are more questions than answers and many things that need to be solved, but change needs to happen and staying with the status quo is not the answer.

A win to savour in a season of struggles

The Crusaders have stumbled and bumbled through the season. With one highlight being the win over the Chiefs in round six and a low light in round 9 being well beaten by the Force.

They can now add another highlight to a struggling season with the win over the Blues.

Both sides had motivation for the game – the Blues cement themselves at the top, and the Crusaders need to get themselves away from the bottom.

The Crusaders showed real grit with a plan to take it to the Blues at scrum time and in the tight with the backs starting to show some real direction in an up tempo game plan.

What a great story seeing Antonio Shalfoon previously from Lincoln High School. A few weeks ago his game time was running out for Springston in the combined country competition. He played well and showed the need for a big tight head lock in that Crusaders pack.

Does Saturday night’s win smooth over the lumps of the season? Definitely not and a robust review will be needed from their training (why do they have so many non-contact soft tissue injuries?) to the make up of the coaching group and management.

But let’s enjoy the moment and that can be sorted later on. Rob Penney may have woken up on Sunday with a headache, but hopefully because he has had a couple of celebratory beers and not over the issues of the past week.

The Crusaders still require a lot of results to fall their way to make the eight so they will need to fight like they are the third monkey on the ramp to Noah’s Ark, and brother it’s starting to rain.

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