NZRU won't stop Air NZ Cup chop
The condemned may be clinging blindly to their false hope, but there is no suggestion that the New Zealand Rugby Union is about to backtrack on its decision to cull four teams from the national provincial championship at the end of this year.
And, much to the dismay of many, it will not necessarily be the bottom four teams in the Air NZ Cup who make the drop to a newly constituted 'First Division' that will come into being for 2010 onwards.
From next year the top league in New Zealand provincial rugby will be the 'Premier Division' comprising the 10 teams that most convincingly meet a complex set of criteria determined by the NZRU.
The unlucky four will be joined by two reluctant participants from Heartland rugby to form a six-team 'First Division' from which one spot will be reserved for automatic promotion to the big league each year. By definition, one team will also drop out of the 'Premier' competition each year to make way.
This has, apparently, been set in stone, even though unions favoured for the drop - namely Counties Manukau, Northland, Tasman and Manawatu - continue to labour in the belief that an eleventh-hour stay of execution may come their way.
There's even been a website set up that promotes this very course of events.
It has happened in the past – the recent past even - when the NZRU bailed out, under threats of legal action, on its decision to downsize the top grade in provincial rugby.
That won't be the case this year, warns NZRU chief executive Steve Tew, given that the 14 Air NZ Cup unions had all bought into the principles of the restructure of the provincial game.
Quite simply the time-frame that has been left for the provincial competition - 12 weeks at best - means nothing more than a 10-team league can be squeezed in. At least not with a full round-robin that has been declared mandatory.
Besides, other factors - most importantly finances - also cry out that downsizing is a must-do. Also there is a growing realisation that 10 teams is all this country needs for its top provincial competition. It is going to happen, warns Tew.
"The reality is the unions came to us at the beginning of the year and said this competition is in trouble, none of us are able to pay our bills and collectively we're going to lost $2.5-3 million this year across the 14 unions, on top of $3m last year and almost $4m the year before," said Tew in an interview with Radio Sport this week.
"Everyone agreed we would not get a unanimous view on what the competition should look like – but we did get a unanimous view on what the key factors for a successful competition were and which we should apply to the decision."
These included a desire to have professionals in it, so it couldn't start till at least the end of Super rugby; protection of the club rugby window; the need for a full round-robin, and semifinals format; that midweek rugby was avoided; and that it would all be done and dusted by the end of October.
"You apply these factors and you end up with a 12-week window maximum, 10 teams takes up 11 weeks, and that's where we're at," summed up Tew.
Tew said the fact that all unions agreed on the principles, if not the actual makeup of the new competition, was enough for a firm decision to be made.
"We could never get everyone to agree because clearly they're interested in their own patch and that's fine… We have a lot of empathy for the people who are going to get demoted out of this competition because it is working well on the field," Tew told Radio Sport.
But not off it.
Tew confirmed that seven of the 14 teams in this year's Air NZ Cup had forecast a deficit and that the competition simply did not stack up financially in its current format.
"What we have created is a secondary player market in New Zealand that is not sustainable," added Tew.
Auckland rugby boss Andy Dalton reaffirmed Tew's tough love stance when he spoke of his own union's financial struggles this year.
"This is a result of the model we've been working under the last few years," said Dalton. "Everybody acknowledges it's been a good competition in the Air NZ Cup on the field, but off-field it's a broken model.
"There needs to be some radical changes in rugby for straight out financial reasons. We've all agreed there needed to be change and we've determined through the consultation process that it be a 10-team competition."
Tew said there was indeed a lifeline for the four unions that miss the cut, and that came in the form of the automatic promotion that would be afforded the winners of the new 'First Division'.
"The most meaningful thing we can provide for that new division is promotion-relegation," he said. "If you want to be in the top competition all you've got to do is win the competition below and you're there."
Manawatu coach Dave Rennie said he couldn't understand why the Air NZ Cup was being downsized for 2010, particularly when it would need another revamp to be fitted in around the World Cup in 2011.
"We're all hoping that the NZRU will see the light and stick with this competition for another year," he said.
But Rennie admitted prospects of a rethink didn't look promising. Tew's words this week tended to write that up in neon.