Relegation plan vexes Northland veteran

17:00, Sep 25 2009

Sitting in Christchurch, one of the power bases of New Zealand rugby, it is easy to be enthusiastic about the national body's plan to cull four unions from the Air New Zealand Cup.

In bidding to be one of the 14 teams that eventually kicked off the revamped competition in 2006, the provinces promised that they would meet various financial, stadium and playing standards. Plainly many have not been able to, leaving the New Zealand Rugby Union with every right to punt four if they see fit.

The NZRU has already tried to prise Air New Zealand Cup status off Northland once and there is every indication that they will again be one of the teams marked for demotion after this season.

Just the thought of it makes stalwart Taniwha first five-eighth David Holwell "very nervous."

"It really hurts me, what's happening," he said as his team prepared to fly to Christchurch for this afternoon's Ranfurly Shield clash with Canterbury.

"It feels like it's all for and about the big unions and let's not worry about the rest of them. Just look at this year's Air New Zealand Cup and look where the crowds are coming from. They're not coming from the big unions, they're coming from the smaller ones."

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The former Wellington captain said people underestimate just what rugby means to provinces like Northland.

"There's not so many people and they work harder for what they've got. Rugby's all about that and that's what I believe in, playing for the people that are closest to you and that's the people living in your town.

"There's a lot of guys up here that would love to play Super 14 rugby and that's their aim and goal. If we get put down to what they call this division one competition, it's going to make it hard for players to get those contracts.

"Therefore, they'll probably move on and we won't be able to keep our own people in our own community.

"It'll end up just being Canterbury, Waikato, Wellington and Auckland playing each other every fourth weekend and the crowds aren't going to come and see that.

"It's hard when you're up here and you play a game at Kerikeri and we got 6 1/2 thousand people all screaming their hearts out for the Cambridge blue jersey. To me, that's what rugby's all about."

After saying he would not play for Northland this year, the 34-year-old said an improvement in his troublesome shoulders and a lack of urgent work to do on his beef farm convinced him to come out of retirement for one last campaign. He reckoned today's shield challenge would be his "sixth or seventh" with a couple against Canterbury standing out.

"I was in the Wellington side when we lost in the last second, when Ben Blair scored [in 2001] ... then in 03 we drew with them 38-all.

"I still really enjoy the Air New Zealand Cup ... especially with Northland.

"We battle away each year for mainly no reward but we're a tight-knit community up here, the people really get behind us and when we do win it's a good feeling."

The Press