New Zealand's provincial unions are back in black for the first time in six years, with reigning champions Canterbury also leading the pack off the field.
However, some unions are still a long way off being match-fit financially.
Consulting firm Deloitte released its State of the Unions report yesterday, which measures the financial performance of the 14 semi-professional and amateur unions that compete in the NPC.
The report reveals the unions' combined incomes have dropped 20 per cent over six years, to $67 million in the 2012 financial year.
A strong focus on cost-cutting reined expenses in to $66m, allowing the unions as a whole to notch up a surplus of $500,000.
Grassroots rugby was spared from the belt-tightening, with investment in the game actually increasing slightly from 2011.
Although things are looking up, not every union has made it across the line - five of the 14 are still in the red.
Canterbury had a healthy $289,000 surplus, leaving Waikato trailing behind with a $245,000 loss.
The only thing keeping some unions above water is regular payments from the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU), which has previously expressed frustration over poor financial management in the provinces.
NZRU chief executive Steve Tew said the provincial unions were getting on the right side of the ledger through "incredibly hard work".
"The challenges are still there obviously, but it's nice to have them move in the right direction," he said.
The Deloitte report singled out Manawatu and Waikato as particularly worrying, with both technically insolvent because they owe more than they own.
It warned that any unions continuing to rack up losses risked suffering the same fate as Otago, which narrowly escaped liquidation last year after the Dunedin City Council wrote off significant debts.
"Another union's demise may not guarantee the same results as Otago, and some creditors may not be as forgiving," the report said.
Tew said the NZRU's balance sheet was in good shape, so it could pitch in once again if another union dropped the ball.
"But our preference is to work at the top of the cliff," he said. "If we have to step in, we certainly have the resources to do so, but it comes with consequences."
Deloitte found the unions depended heavily on NZRU grants, gambling charities and sponsorship, which made up 68 per cent of their income.
Meanwhile, match-related income continued to slide to 13 per cent of income, an area which the report said "must be improved".
The report said boosting crowd attendance numbers at matches might be achieved through season-ticket packages, as well as encouraging local "tribal" support, like Manawatu's Bucket Heads.
The report explored another practical way struggling unions could get back on their feet - stop losing.
It said the "harsh reality of professional sport" meant winning teams earned more match-related income, as well as catching sponsors' eyes.
Those that held the Ranfurly Shield also made more money over the season.
The flipside of success on the field was the need to spend more money on quality players and coaches.
- © Fairfax NZ News