Northland and Tasman have won their fight to stay in the Air New Zealand Cup with the New Zealand Rugby Union dumping a recommendation to axe the two unions from next year's tournament.
But their existence at the top level is conditional on them meeting further requirements.
The NZRU also decided to throw out a recommendation to change the Ranfurly Shield format that would require holders to take the shield on the road after four successful defences.
So the status quo remains on both counts.
There was joy in both provinces at the top of the two islands after the NZRU board reached a unanimous decision to retain the 14-team format despite the extensive Air New Zealand Cup Competitions review document favouring a reduction to 12 teams - at the expense of the Taniwha and Makos.
Northland and Tasman, with support from the New Zealand Maori board, produced passionate defences on Thursday and the NZRU board spent all day on Friday considering these before reaching their decision.
It will be seen as a victory for the provinces but NZRU chairman Jock Hobbs preferred to see it as "a victory for rugby".
"It has been worthwhile. You go through these exercises and you learn ... and we have," he said.
The NZRU bosses denied that the threat of legal action had led to this backdown, saying they were confident that their processes had been "thorough and fair".
But they have put some strong conditions on both Northland and Tasman that must be met to assure their stay in the top division. These include:
Tasman must repair and retain the partnership of the Nelson and Marlborough unions that fractured this year. They must also convince the NZRU of their financial viability, including starting repayments of a $340,000 loan granted to them by the national body this year.
Northland must make governance changes that include a new CEO and the current board resigning and seeking re-election. The Taniwha must also satisfy financial sustainability.
These would need to be in place by the end of the year, perhaps earlier.
The NZRU's decisions are based on operating a 14-team competition for the next two years. That will cost them the $1.3m that would have been saved by axing two teams.
And as the financial worries uncovered in this exercise continue to hang over some unions, the NZRU has decided that all 14 sides will have to pass an annual "warrant of fitness" to prove their worthiness.
"We will expect provincial unions to maintain their financial viability on an annual basis which will be assessed. Any failure to do so could see a province removed from the competition," said Hobbs.
The decision raises some concerns about plans for next year though. The championship will sensibly revert to a round-robin format that will see teams play all opposition. The current quarter-finals will be dropped with just semifinals and a final being played.
That means a 15-week competition as opposed to the 13-week exercise recommended in the review. The extension could impact on the club rugby window the NZRU had hoped to protect.
NZRU chief executive said part of their discussions had also involved the Heartland Championship teams where Northland and Tasman were destined.
It seems the pair weren't wanted there with the Heartland unions "very happy" with their current format.
The vexed topic of the salary cap will also have to be revisited and the NZRU are waiting to discuss this with the players association.
The NZRU bosses said they weren't surprised by the level of passion that had emerged in the provinces following the recommendations.
Tew said he would have been surprised if that didn't exist because rugby clearly means so much to local communities.
The NZRU bosses had been inundated with several hundred emails from the Tasman area - most of them constructive, according to Tew.
Two mayors from the Northland region had also pleaded for the Taniwha to stay at the top level, declaring that the north needed rugby and sport for their youth.
"We have clearly heard from those unions and their supporters about the impact they believe demotion will have on the game in their regions," said Hobbs.
The NZRU board signalled that it may look to move to a lesser number of teams in either 2011 or 2012 depending on the impact of the Sanzar competitions review currently underway.
There are clear indications that the Super 14 will be extended which will obviously have an impact on the domestic season.
As for the Ranfurly Shield, suddenly an energised product following Wellington's stunning success last week, it appears common sense has prevailed and history will remain.
"Based on various discussions regarding the Ranfurly Shield, we had been encouraged to explore with Provincial Unions how we might look at raising the visibility of the Ranfurly Shield," said Tew.
"However, having listened to the feedback, there is clear view that we should leave the rules regarding challenges in the Air New Zealand Cup as they are."
But the NZRU will recommend a change to the regulations for the shield at the next NZRU annual or special general meeting to provide that the winners of the previous year's Meads Cups will automatically be granted a shield challenge in the following year as one of the two mandatory challenges.
The second mandatory challenge from a Heartland Championship union would be at the discretion of the holder.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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