Departing All Black Jimmy Cowan has hit out at the saturation coverage of the intensely compact national provincial championship, and the Southland centurion says the format is making people “sick” of rugby.
Cowan, about to link with English club Gloucester, has left his mark on the New Zealand rugby scene over the past 12 years. But he has never experienced anything like this year's eight-week provincial competition and doesn't believe it is promoting the game.
The combative former All Blacks halfback, who has played 108 games for the Highlanders and today brings up his century with Southland, made his views clear on the rigorous demands of the domestic showpiece.
“It's fair to say I don't enjoy it. It's very hard,” Cowan told the Sunday Star-Times.
At present, the NPC is played every night of the week except Monday. Even the most devoted punters are struggling to keep track of results.
“To be fair, there is a lot of rugby, from Tuesday night to Sunday. I think a lot of people get sick of it,” Cowan said.
It is not just supporters finding the format difficult to follow. Coaches and players are limited in their ability to train, recover and prepare between matches.
“It's not something I'm used to. It's very tough for everyone involved,” Cowan said.
“We played Tasman Wednesday night then travel back Thursday and the coaches have to deliver a debrief and preview before Sunday. It's bloody tough for the coaching crews with limited resources and for the players having to back up with three and four-day turnarounds.”
There have been suggestions the format - sandwiched between Super Rugby and the brief off-season - downgrades first-class rugby for those outside Super Rugby bases, and panders to television audiences. Crowd attendances have been poor across the country, especially in the main centres for mid-week contests.
“Everyone has their lives to live," Cowan said.
"Rugby is not the be-all and end-all. I imagine a lot of people have things to do on a Tuesday and Wednesday night rather than sit home or go and watch a game of rugby. That's what it boils down to.”
The competition is set to be reviewed at the end of the year as part of the collective bargaining discussions, but the New Zealand Rugby Union's preference is to keep the status quo for the next two seasons.
NZRU chief executive Steve Tew acknowledged there were “fears” people were being turned off by the sheer volume of rugby. But he said extending, or altering, the dual pool competition - which he felt retained interest through promotion and relegation - could lead to a cull of the 14 teams.
“That is the fear, it is a lot of rugby and it is played over a relatively short period of time,” Tew told the Star-Times. “But the feedback I'm getting from the people I mix with is they like not having to watch every game and having the convenience of watching rugby midweek.
“The format is a compromise to fit a 14-team competition into the window. It is a product of the constraints we have.”
Tew admitted there was opposition to the current structure, but suggested that the unions were happy overall.
“If you look at some of the disappointing crowds that are happening now you'll probably find those are at the unions that aren't performing well,” Tew said.
“The other issue is weather. The worst thing you could ask for is a wet winter.
“I haven't seen any official crowd numbers. We'll hold on that until we wash up the season and see some formal numbers.
“I know there are some coaches who would prefer to have more time to study opposition, but there is also an argument that not being so detailed, the players play what's in front of them more.”
- © Fairfax NZ News