The New Zealand Rugby Union has buckled on proposed changes to the domestic competitions and opted for the status quo – retaining a 14-team premier competition and 12-team Heartland Championship for 2010.
The decision is a victory for the provinces and a knockback for NZRU chief executive Steve Tew who had overseen proposals to revamp the national structure into a 10 team Premier league, six-team Division One and a 10-team Heartland Championship.
The threat of legal action by affected unions – most likely Counties Manukau, Tasman, Manawatu and Northland - played a part in the u-turn.
But it appears to be only a stay of execution. Changes loom for 2011 when New Zealand hosts the World Cup and the domestic season will be severely squeezed.
Tew and his staff were working on changes in response to a meeting earlier this year when the viability of the national championship was severely questioned by everyone within the game.
But it seems a bumper Air New Zealand Cup where provinces covered their costs and produced a compelling championship has been enough to convince the NZRU board to stick with the current format – for the time being.
The ongoing collective bargaining process with the New Zealand Players' Association has also been a stumbling block to changes being implemented in time for next season.
In the end it seems things got too hard.
It's a second survival story for Northland and Tasman who had to fight hard last year to remain involved because of financial struggles.
It will also keep the peace in a sport that has had its share of struggles this year. That will surely have been a factor for the board who will be mindful of the need to keep the country unified in the buildup to the World Cup.
In a statement NZRU chairman Jock Hobbs said the board and management agreed that despite the significant amount of progress that had been made to identify and develop the 10-6-10 competition, the current collective employment negotiations taking place and other factors meant the proposed competition could not go ahead in 2010.
''A number of factors have changed since the board made its decisions in June and July. These include the fact that competition formats have become a fundamental part of the collective employment negotiations currently underway, the fact that we have appeals lodged by the Tasman and Counties-Manukau Rugby Unions and threatened legal action from other unions,'' he said.
''All of these matters were not likely to be resolved prior to the first quarter of 2010, and with outcomes uncertain and the need to create certainty for provincial unions and teams, it was not possible to go ahead with the new format in 2010.''
A number of provincial unions had also made submissions to the NZRU which, in some cases, indicated a change in their position on the proposed changes or at least the timing of those changes, he said.
The board's previous decision on the format of the domestic competitions in 2011 and 2012 remains as a 10-6-10 format at this time. This will be subject to continued negotiations with the NZRPA and the NZRU will be seeking to secure an affordable and sustainable player payment model and salary cap as key outcomes of collective bargaining. The format will also be discussed further with Provincial Unions.
In announcing the decision on Friday after a lengthy board meeting on Thursday, Hobbs and NZRU CEO Steve Tew noted that the initial impetus for changes to domestic competitions came from the nine non-Franchise Host Provincial Unions which collectively requested urgent intervention from the NZRU in April.
Tew said the NZRU was focused on finalising a new collective employment agreement with the NZRPA, which will be critical to determining the costs for provincial unions and competitions in the next three years.
''Like all those involved in rugby, we have been greatly encouraged by the public's reaction to the Air New Zealand Cup in 2009. The strong growth in television audiences and the visibility of the competition were hugely positive. Together with our provincial unions we now need to figure out how we can harness that interest and support in 2010 and beyond to sustain those teams and these vital competitions over the longer term,'' Tew said.
A meeting of all 14 Premier Division provincial unions CEOs and the CEOs of Wanganui and Mid-Canterbury was held in Wellington today to further discuss these issues.
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