Provincial games are the soul of NZ rugby
Despite the governing body's best attempts to marginalise New Zealand provincial rugby, the "basket case" is alive and kicking.
Four enthralling and well-attended finals brought the domestic rugby season to a close at the weekend, it being no coincidence that home advantage was a factor in all the deciders. Buoyed by unashamedly-parochial, raucous crowds Canterbury, Counties Manukau, East Coast and Buller roared to victory on the back of the home town support.
As the window for domestic rugby is squeezed shut to make way for rugby's cash cows, the pressure has risen on players, coaches, fans and administrators to make our national provincial competitions fit inside an ever-decreasing time frame. As a result, the NPC has become hard to follow, teams facing short turnarounds and leaving supporters confused. While match attendances have been down, especially for midweek fixtures, it seems the provincial spirit, the soul of New Zealand rugby, has survived - especially at the business end.
Notwithstanding the hype and hoopla of Super Rugby, for many fans provincial rugby remains more relevant. After all, it's where you live, it's tribal. When representatives of your hometown, wearing the colours that define your province, gather to do battle it all becomes a little more personal.
Canterbury have been accused in recent times of having taken their success for granted, but that seemed far from the case on Saturday night as they repelled a spirited [first half] challenge from traditional foes Auckland to claim their fifth consecutive title. The visitors played smart, accurate rugby in the first 38 minutes, suggesting their "dumb and dumber" alter-ego may have been pushed aside. But no, just before the break and into the second spell it was there for all to see. The same muddle-headed play and inaccuracy that had plagued the Blues' season re-emerged.
What a role reversal from the nineties when the mighty Aucks reigned supreme on the back of utterly professional, efficient, winning rugby.
The home side, spurred on by a resurgent crowd, fed off the Auckland errors in their usual ruthless manner, and the match was won well before fulltime. Shorn of most of their All Blacks, the Red and Blacks have come a long way since their first match, an error-ridden loss to Tasman in Nelson. These guys are the pacesetters in NZ rugby, despite their Super Rugby alter-ego's inability to get the job done. Coaches Tabai Matson and Scott Robertson have slotted seamlessly into the void left by Rob Penney - a sixth title well within their sights in 2013.
Counties Manukau are an enigma. Their forwards do so many of the basics badly yet somehow present a platform for their super-charged backline. Otago had the Steelers rattled on Friday night, applying early pressure all over the paddock but the home side, roared on by 12,000 fans, the best crowd seen at Pukekohe since the glory days of Lomu and Vidiri, had too many X-factor players. One such star, two-try hero halfback August Pulu, had a night you dream about. The Chiefs management must be licking their lips at the prospect of his presence with the Super Rugby champions next season.
Otago's rags to [almost] riches season was a step in the right direction for the troubled union who may benefit from another season in the less-demanding championship division.
The Meads Cup final at Ruatoria offered up classic heartland rugby. The match had it all - a irresistible comeback from a home side roared on by the fiercest set of supporters in the country, pitch and sideline invasions by over-eager fans and the victors being mobbed at the final whistle by supporters - including a horse painted in East Coast's colours.
Whanganui put up a great fight, but when the tide turned in the second spell and the fans fired up, there was only going to be one winner. The contrast in class between Heartland rugby and the semi-professional ranks was vivid, but there was no difference in the passion of the players and crowd.
On the weekend following Sir Wilson Whineray's death it was fitting that all four finals should be played with spirit, style and class - attributes which set the great All Blacks leader apart from his peers.
Yesterday Buller capped a fine season with a thrilling Lochore Cup win over South Canterbury in Westport. Again, local fans came out in big numbers - making the difference when the going got tough.
It was good to see former MBC, Moutere and Marlborough hooker/prop Jonathon Andrews turning out for the Green and Blacks.
A wee footnote for the Tasman faithful. The weekend's results mean the Makos beat both the premiership and championship winners in 2012 - oh, and the Red Devils downed the Lochore Cup winners. Just thought I'd mention it.
The Marlborough Express