OPINION: Auckland is out of love with rugby
Scotty Stevenson says New Zealand needs its biggest city to be in love with Rugby Union.
However, if last weekend is anything to go by, Auckland may be considering yet another love affair with that other rugby code. Can the Blues win over a jaded public?
Stevenson says this weekend has more riding on it than just competition points.
In the final ten minutes of last weekend’s capitulation against the Sharks, you could see the signs of exasperation writ large on the faces of the Blues’ most experienced players. There was Jerome Kaino, a bona fide colossus of the modern All Blacks era, standing hands on hips, shell-shocked by what was happening around him. There was James Parsons, sitting in the covered dugout, headgear still on, helpless to do anything, staring at the grass. They were but two of the players out there, but they have been through more than the rest. And they looked for all the world like they had nothing left to give.
They do, of course, and they’ll give it again this weekend when the Blues try to snap a 13-game losing streak against the Chiefs. Kaino, in particular, will have a point to prove because last Saturday was far from his best night out in a Blues jersey. This is his final season for this besieged club. He has never won a title here. This weekend will mark the last time he takes the field against the Chiefs. There will be many lasts this year for Jerome Kaino.
What he and Parsons and the rest of this Blues team will be cognisant of is the importance of not posting another last. Bottom of the New Zealand conference is not the natural home for the team representing the largest population base of the nation. And that population base is as exasperated by this interminable slide into decline as the players must surely be. We know this because last week they voted with their television remotes, and watched the Warriors play league.
Regardless of what you think about television rating methodology in an age of time shifting, streaming and second-screening, they remain the fundamental, staple accounting of what viewers want. Last week, and this has not happened often, the New Zealand Warriors, another Auckland sporting side that has endured its share of sharpened knives and blunt assessments, out-rated the Blues.
Some context is required: the Warriors are the only professional NRL rugby league club in New Zealand so it stands to reason that they could expect a national eyeball catchment, and the Blues were playing the Sharks, which is not a matchup that comes close to a New Zealand conference game. That said, Rugby Union still proclaims itself the national game. When New Zealand Rugby’s franchise side in New Zealand’s biggest city can’t retain its place atop the ratings heap, alarm bells must surely be ringing.
Fortunately, from a ratings point of view, the Blues v Chiefs match this weekend should go some way to restoring the ratings order from Rugby Union’s point of view. But much of that interest will likely be driven by those outside the Blues borders. That is where things start to look grim. Success is no marketing plan in sport, but entrenched, loyal and enduring fan support is. Just ask the Warriors.
The adage that the All Blacks are strong when Auckland rugby is strong may have been disproved some years ago, but don’t be so quick to dismiss the basic tenet here: As CSM CEO Simon Porter pointed out last week on the Rugby Pass Short Ball Podcast, “The big cannons are in the northern hemisphere” and New Zealand Rugby does well to compete against much greater financial heft. They cannot hope to continue this fight if a region representing at least one third of New Zealand’s population is disinterested in the game. New Zealand Rugby is strong when Auckland is engaged.
Right now, they are not.
The Blues need not only results but also an ability to more efficiently evangelise the game to a public that wants to believe in a turnaround of fortunes. The Warriors opened their pre-season to SKY Sport Producer Paora Ratahi this year in order to give fans an exclusive look behind the scenes. The fans saw the hard work and honesty, began to believe in what the team was capable of and have, on the back of an historic opening win streak, started to flock back to Mt Smart.
Blues fans have heard nary a whisper from the front office, and not a peep from the board or the owner representatives. It has been left to the same old players to front the public, to explain away the latest loss and to convince us all that a change is gonna come. We need more than that. We can’t heap it all on the shoulders of those on the playing field. New Zealand Rugby needs a robust and long-term plan to regenerate the game in the big smoke.
Not another piece of puff.