Monday, 5 March 2012

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

All the best lines are borrowed from someone else. Charles Dickens may have written those immortal words in 1859 but more than a century and half later they still ring true. So I’ve flogged them for this column to describe the plight of Otago rugby.

Fans barely had time to catch their breath after a gutsy Highlanders victory over the Chiefs when the news broke that Otago rugby was broke! The news sent the alarm bells ringing around the rest of provincial New Zealand as everyone asked who’s next?

Due to uncharitable selectors, genetic shortcomings and a healthy helping of cowardice under fire, I never got to play provincial rugby for Southland. I got to provincial B level and some of my former team mates cruelly suggest I did so with the aid of a tail wind and a wet sail.

That I never got to play provincial rugby was never due to a lack of desire or effort. I just wasn’t good enough! Truth be known, if I could have, I would have paid for the pleasure of playing provincial rugby. So would many from my generation. We were raised to aspire to represent our province for the love of it. The glory was payment enough.

Several mates, who did go on to play provincial rugby, tell the same story. They counted themselves lucky to get a few free beers, a petrol voucher at the end of the season, a trip to the North Island and, if they were really lucky, a crack at a touring team such as the Springboks, the Lions or Australia.

They lived in simpler times back then. Most were farmers’ sons or worked for rugby-friendly businesses. Time off work was not such a big deal. Weekend work was the exception, not the rule. Employers were proud to hire a rugby player. They were good for business.

The advent of professionalism in the mid 1990s changed all that. Almost overnight, players were being paid, even at club level. Loyalty went out the door and in came the nomadic rugby mercenaries. Having a day job and playing for the love of the game became as unfashionable as a Bee Gees CD, MC Hammer pants or a Billy Ray Cyrus mullet.

And therein lies the problem for New Zealand rugby, especially for the bigger provinces in the supposedly “semi-professional” ITM Cup. There are just too many players being paid too much money to play too much rugby in front of too few fans. It’s Economics 101. Supply has outstripped demand. Not just for rugby but also for rugby players.

The global financial crisis has blunted a previously insatiable offshore appetite for any half-decent kiwi footy player. Now you’ve got to be worth your salt to get a meaningful overseas contract. Being an average provincial player no longer cuts the mustard.

So what’s the solution? Is it too simplistic to say all rugby below Super 15 level should be strictly amateur? Should we go back to the future and play God’s game at provincial level simply because we love it? Greater rugby minds than mine, such as Mike Brewer, think so and I think he’s right. I don’t buy into the argument there will be a mass exodus of young players to Europe, Japan and rugby league. Where will they all go?

Forget the Black Caps, the Silvers Ferns, the Warriors, the Breakers, the Phoenix or the Black Sticks. Rugby owns the heart and soul of provincial New Zealand. We love the All Blacks and, sure, Super 15 provides razzle-dazzle, week in, week out, with the world’s best players on display. But when push comes to shove, provincial rugby is tribalism at its very best. Readers of this publication know that because they reside in heartland New Zealand.

Forewarned is forearmed. We can’t let the demise of Otago be the forerunner of the systemic failure of provincial rugby. It’s our heritage. It must not be history.

Jamie Mackay is the host of the Ballance Agri-Nutrients Farming Show which airs on Radio Sport and Newstalk ZB.


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