Discontent is growing among the country's provincial unions about the “ridiculous” NPC format and dwindling crowds.
Well over halfway through the compressed eight-week competition, poor crowd attendances and compromising midweek fixtures are creating a groundswell of angst.
While some players enjoy the format, former All Blacks halfback Jimmy Cowan last week told the Sunday Star-Times the Tuesday to Sunday weekly match schedule made supporters sick of the game and players and coaches were being pushed to their physical and mental limits.
During the week, the Star-Times canvassed the 14 provincial unions, requesting this season's crowd figures and gauging opinion on the structure. Ten responded and revealed alarming attendance falls were a “nationwide” problem.
Counties Manukau are among the best performing teams, with five wins from six games, and coach Tana Umaga encourages his side to play arguably the most attractive style in the country. Yet, like many others, Counties cannot get people through the gates.
Even with kids having free entry, their best turnout was 3300 on a Sunday.
“This ridiculous draw is packing so much in to such a tight timeframe,” Counties chief executive Andrew Maddock said. “It doesn't work for people wanting to attend.
“It's too short. There's too few games. Provincial unions get limited exposure. When we've got our day in the sun it's all over in a very short period.”
Across the board, crowd figures paint a sad picture.
Last year Manawatu attracted 6000 to 7000 for every match. This year crowds have almost halved.
“Our numbers are way down,” Manawatu boss John Knowles said.
“People are pretty over rugby. It's nationwide. The Super Rugby expansion didn't help that. There's not much attraction for the public to go on a Tuesday or Wednesday night.
“I don't think the competition is broken. Some of my other colleagues think it's terrible, but it's the best we can get from the window that's available while keeping 14 teams. We are saying ‘leave it alone' but adding a couple of weeks would be very desirable.”
The disparity between weekend and midweek games is startling.
Waikato had 11,500 for their match against Northland on a Saturday. On a Tuesday, against Chiefs neighbours Bay of Plenty, the crowd was just 3500.
Southland had just 4500 fans for their traditional derby with Otago.
“The Otago crowd on a Thursday night was one of the worst we have ever had,” Southland general manager Brian Hopley said. “That's our local derby which normally produces our biggest turnout.
“At the moment we are behind on expected numbers but looking around the [other] grounds we've probably done all right. If you look when the camera pans it doesn't look like there's anyone in some of the stands.” Empty stadiums are most evident in the main centres.
Even in Wellington, the sight of empty yellow seats is a frequent eyesore.
“I'm aware there are a number of provinces that are unhappy with the number of crowds they are getting,” Wellington chief executive James Te Puni said. “That seems to be the nature of things. While the midweek games work very well for television, the reality is if we had all our games at the weekend we'd be seeing better crowds. Adding another couple of weeks to the competition would be better. Having less games during the week would be better.”
The compact format was popular last year but the novelty has worn off. The format is tailormade for television audiences but a Sky spokesperson revealed broadcast figures had also dipped.
“I can say that the ratings are, so far, down on last year."
New Zealand Rugby Union boss Steve Tew believes the split division model retains interest through promotion and relegation but there are also gripes that everyone doesn't meet during the round robin.
“There's clearly challenges for everybody from the compressed format,” Canterbury chief executive Hamish Riach said. “The team feels it the most. They are the ones that are being physically challenged.
“When you don't play everyone it's not as good as if you did. Everyone battles with the short turnarounds and short weeks to make it work. Those would be the two aspects that you could look at in future.
“We would always welcome the opportunity to review it.”
Last week, Tew pointed out an alternative, longer format meant teams might be culled. Losing up to four teams is not an option smaller, less commercially sustainable provinces want to revisit but Super Rugby franchise-bases would have no issues with it.
“From a crowd point of view the midweek games don't work for us,” Auckland boss Andy Dalton said. “We were keen on a 10-team competition over a 12-week period in a round robin format but we've moved on from there.
“I've got over it. There's a strong feeling among the provincial unions to have a 14-team competition. That wasn't our preference but it's here now so let's see how it goes.”
The NZRU is keen to stick with the status quo for the next two years but it is very clear something must be done to address the lack of supporters attending games.
- Sunday Star Times