7 Mar 2019

Rugby: Battling for the soul of the game

5:48 pm on 7 March 2019

Opinion - They kept reminding us. To be fair, it was newsworthy and worth being proud of. About half a dozen times as we first attended the Hurricanes' captain's run last Thursday and then again throughout the game against the Brumbies.

Hurricanes Ngani Laumape breaks a tackle to score a try.

Hometown hero Ngani Laumape scored a hat-trick at his old stomping ground in Palmerston North on the weekend. Photo: Photosport

While it was a pride thing, the Hurricanes management needn't have bothered. In the media box, we could see perfectly what they kept telling us about. Central Trust Energy Arena, formerly known as the Palmerston North Showgrounds, was sold out. Fourteen thousand people crammed into the stands, watching their side systematically dismantle the Brumbies.

It was on Friday, 1 March, an auspicious date. Twenty three years to the day that Super Rugby began on that very ground ringed by a dusty speedway track in the middle of Palmerston North.

For a lot of us of a certain age, it was a turning point in our young relationship with the game - even though the first match between the then-Wellington Hurricanes and Auckland Blues featured some delightfully provincial potted plants lining the teams' entrances through large pieces of paper.

It meant that the game had changed, it was never going back to the way it had been before, and money was now the driving force behind the decision-making process.

Which is why it was fitting that last Friday was also the day that the rugby world was trying to process the latest development in professional rugby, the supposed 'World League'. An almost cartoonishly evil plot to ring-fence the most financially productive test sides and leave the rest to fend for themselves. 'The rest' basically meaning the Pacific Islands.

I walked down from the media box up in the grandstand and took a walk around the ground before kickoff. It was a stunning evening in 'Palmy', and everything was going well for the city's one big game of the year.

I could overhear chatter about the day's developments. 'Bull****', 'it's bloody unfair', stuff like that. But it was outweighed by the laughter of kids and adults alike as they got to their seats on the bleachers behind the fences that are there to stop midget cars flying into the crowd (the rugby ground sits inside a racetrack at the stadium).

This was a big night, the giant banner - proclaiming the Canes' arrival stretched out across the main street - proudly had local boy made good Ngani Laumape front and centre.

Behind the southern goal posts I saw something that I'd never seen before at a rugby game. Three Muslim women, in their late teens or early 20's, wearing black and yellow hijabs. There to support their team, in a place they felt safe. I kept walking around, among the crowd of familiar New Zealand diversity - Pākehā, Māori and Polynesian alike of all ages.

In a perfect world, the Hurricanes would've been playing the Blues on their anniversary. In a pretty good consolation, Laumape had a stunner of a game and scored three tries.

The last one he dotted down right in front of where the young women aforementioned were sitting. The Canes ran out handsome winners, getting their season back on track and repaying the faith of their wider fan base.

Everyone left the park happy. The Manawatu Rugby Union had done themselves proud by replicating the success of the first ever professional game all those years ago. The Union also proved a point - if you make the investment and engage with the fans - rugby truly becomes the sport that it tries to sell itself as. Inclusive, entertaining and engaging.

It seems almost ridiculous that we look at Super Rugby as some sort of misty-eyed example of better times, especially given the current problems the competition faces. But it was the event itself, the fact that the little player in a big franchise relationship got given the chance and aced it, attracting the wide range of fans that filled their stadium and made it such a fun evening. It seemed like a microcosm of what all the backlash against World Rugby was about.

Rugby's bottom line is money, no-one is in denial about that. It has been for the last 23 years (openly at least). What the game in Palmerston North showed is that you don't always need to go diving for the biggest pile of it to get the most lucrative outcome.

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