Mixed report card for province's teams

TONY SMITH
Last updated 05:00 29/09/2012

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The state of Canterbury team sport is a mirror image of our cityscape - a few shining beacons and plenty of hope for a brighter future.

Red-and-black resilience was personified in the summer of 2010-11 when the Canterbury men's and women's cricket teams and the Canterbury Red Sox men's softball team won national titles in "earthquake season".

They joined myriad teams from other Canterbury codes - headlined by George Whitelock's Canterbury rugby team - atop the totems of New Zealand domestic sport.

Fast forward a year and things aren't quite as rosy, although rugby remains in the ascendant. Canterbury won a fourth national title on the bounce late last year and are still on course to grab a fifth.

With Super rugby regulars Whitelock, Matt Todd, Wyatt Crockett, Andy Ellis, Ryan Crotty and Nasi Manu to the fore, Canterbury look like men playing boys at national provincial championship level - of equivalent standard to club rugby before the professional era.

It's almost taken for granted that Canterbury will continue to star in the rugby universe but it's always encouraging to see teams taste success after barren runs.

The Canterbury Cats women's hockey team broke a decade-long drought by winning their national championship late last month - a commendable feat for a young team without an overseas import or a Black Sticks Olympic squad member in their ranks.

The Canterbury Magicians continued to weave their spell on national women's cricket opposition, winning the Twenty-20 title and finishing second in the one-day competition. But the Canterbury Wizards men went from top of the Plunket Shield four-day domestic series in 2010-11 to a last-place finish last year. They lost the Twenty-20 final and were beaten semifinalists in the 50-over championship.

After winning their first title for 15 years in February 2011 - just two days before the fateful big quake struck - the Canterbury Red Sox softballers were beaten finalists in 2012.

Just as local and national government bodies are looking to rebuild quake-ravaged Canterbury slowly, many Canterbury sports are investing in youth to replenish their ranks and plan for more productive futures.

Hockey is a shining example. President Sandra Pooch said Canterbury Hockey was just about to select the first intake for its new academy programme headed by Black Sticks assistant coach Chris Leslie.

The Canterbury Cavaliers men's team finished seventh out of eight teams this year after narrowly missing a place in the top four. But Pooch said the Cavs were "an extra young team" with most players aged under 21. "They'll be better next year for having had that experience."

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The Canterbury Hockey board has a policy of investing in local player development rather than rely on short-season imports.

Pooch is upbeat about the sport's future after Canterbury won the under-18 boys and girls national titles this year. "It's been a long time since any province has done that," she said.

Hockey's continued development is dependent on something a lot of sports lack, post-quakes - facilities. Pooch and her board are eagerly awaiting two water-based hockey turfs to replace the badly damaged pitches at Porritt Park.

Canterbury Cricket chief executive Lee Germon said the Magicians still ranked as one of Canterbury's most consistently successful teams and he wasn't too fazed by the Wizards' performances last season.

The Wizards produced a clutch of Black Caps last year, meaning the Canterbury squad were predominantly under-23 players with a leavening of experience. Germon said while the Plunket Shield placing was disappointing, it wasn't entirely unexpected in a development year. The bonus was watching the likes of Tom Latham, Henry Nicholls and Logan van Beek kick on.

What of other sports?

The Canterbury netball team topped the national netball round-robin in 2010 and 2011 but the province's flagship team, the Canterbury Tactix, continued to struggle in the trans-Tasman championship.

Basketball continues to produce talented young hoopsters but suffers from the lack of a national league franchise.

Canterbury football hasn't won a national crown for 21 years since Keith Braithwaite captained Christchurch United to the national league-Chatham Cup double. He is now coach of the Canterbury United Dragons, who have made the top-four playoffs for the last three seasons.

Don't write the Dragons off this year if they can come up with a couple of exotic imports and keep All White Aaron Clapham.

But there's promise of better things to come with Canterbury winning the national youth league final last term. The Mainland Pride women's team are also benefiting from players making New Zealand age-group World Cup teams.

The Canterbury Bulls lost the Rugby League Cup to Auckland in mid-year and lost long serving coach Brent Stuart due to family commitments.

Stuart told The Press it was "a pretty sad state of affairs" when a 30-man training squad dwindled to 19 "through injuries and guys pulling out for different reasons". "Go back 10 years ago, blokes would have given anything to play in that game."

The Canterbury team were kicked out of the South Island championship final this week for defaulting to Southland because not enough players were available to plug the gaps left by call-ups to the South Island Scorpions, injuries, work and family commitments and religious beliefs precluding Sunday play.

Perhaps the Canterbury Rugby Football League (CRFL) needs to start 2013 by asking all premiership players to pledge a commitment to playing club and representative football through to October.

Of all the core Canterbury sports, rugby league now has the lowest profile - through no fault of the CRFL.

It has lost the game's biggest domestic brand - the Bulls - since the national championship became a zonal format and the Scorpions took over.

It's time the NZRL readmitted the Bulls and allowed a rest-of-South Island team to play under the Scorpions banner.

- Canterbury

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