10-team comp means 30pc less fans

Last updated 12:00 25/09/2009

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With Manawatu rugby's first-division status under threat, Manawatu rugby historian, Rugby Museum chairman and Rugby Almanack editor Clive Akers, has sent this open letter to the New Zealand Rugby Union.

Please, members of the NZRU board, allow the 14-team Air New Zealand Cup format to continue. For the first time in many years we have a competition which has excited the nation simply because of the unpredictability of the results.

Each of you board members will have noticed the revival of interest, particularly by fans in the smaller, less fancied, Air NZ Cup regions.

The 14-team concept provides almost a nation-wide competition in which the fan can feel part of a team.

Your proposal to demote four teams (commonly believed to be Manawatu, Counties Manukau, Northland, and Tasman) will remove 30 percent of the present fans from attending fixtures.

No matter how hard you try to promote a meaningful middle division to accommodate the demoted unions, we know from past experience it will have little public appeal.

Even if you have promotion-relegation, we know that once down, you remain down.

The quality players and coaches will have flown and the fans will have gone golfing. We need a broad base on which to build strong Super 14 teams, not a narrow base of fewer players and coaches.

There are claims that the present Air NZ Cup competition is too long and too hard on the players.

Such calls are coming from the large unions who say their players are getting too tired after a lengthy Super 14 campaign.

We in the smaller unions don't really care about the problems of the big five unions. We simply ask that we are provided with a meaningful championship in which we can place our strength and pride against the so-called big guns. Ironically, the only union to consistently dominate us is Tasman, which is also in your firing line.

Is Manawatu being victimised because the Hurricanes have four Air NZ Cup unions when all other franchises have only two or three? Because provincial rugby is so healthy in the lower North Island, why should Manawatu be executed just to restore a national balance?

I wish to remind you, Mr Hobbs, and fellow members, that your NZRU Constitution clearly states, under Objects And Powers, that the union is to "promote, foster and develop rugby throughout New Zealand".

When Manawatu met the NZRU criteria to enter the Air NZ Cup competition in 2006, your board was promoting our game by accepting our application. Now you are saying you cannot afford to maintain a 14-team championship. Are Manawatu, and three other unions, about to become the scapegoat for the declining interest in Super rugby?

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Furthermore, Mr Hobbs, you will have noticed the vast numbers of excited children at FMG Stadium. Your board spends millions annually on rugby development in schools. It's our Turbos here in the Manawatu who do more to promote the game locally than anything planned by your staff.

In their four home games, Manawatu has attracted an average crowd of 7800. In the three years, 2003 to 2005, previous to our promotion, our average attendance was 2200 for division two fixtures. Is the union acting in the best interests of rugby by consigning Manawatu back to those poor crowds?

FMG Stadium is attracting larger crowds than venues of higher populations. This year, no venue north of the Bombay Hill has equalled the attendances at Palmerston North. Turbos fans are obviously more passionate about our rugby than the millions of residents of the greater Auckland region.

Average home crowds this season: Wellington 13,700; Canterbury 11,000; Hawke's Bay 10,400; Waikato 9000; Manawatu 7800; Bay of Plenty 7700; Southland 7600; Auckland 7200; Taranaki 6800; Otago 6000; North Harbour 5400; Northland 4300; Tasman 4300; Counties-Manukau 4000 (Rugby News).

Manawatu is trying to recover from its heavy financial loss of 2008. So are other unions. But if sent back to a lower division, reduced sponsorship, and crowds of 2000 or fewer, Manawatu may have little hope of restoring its financial position.

If Manawatu is to be thrown out of the Air NZ Cup, I'm sure it will be extremely hard for the local community to accept your cost-cutting methods. We feel we are victims of drastic measures being taken because of cost savings to be made in retaining your Super rugby. The glut of rugby in the major centres shouldn't mean the provincial regions have to suffer.

The best rugby of the Turbos is yet to come if you allow them the opportunity.

- Manawatu Standard

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