Rugby in worse shape than we thought - Bidwell

4:29 pm on 14 February 2020

Feeling inspired by Ian Foster yet?

Ian Foster at the announcement he's the new head coach of the All Blacks.

All Blacks coach Ian Foster. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

You might have noticed that the new All Blacks coach has been doing the rounds. It's purely promotional stuff, as trusted and respected media types furiously pat 'Fozzie's' back and he does his best to appear statesmanlike and charming in return.

Worthless barely begins to describe the exchanges. The test of any public figure isn't the honeymoon period, but the moments when their authority or competence are called into question.

Foster's predecessor Steve Hansen was very good in those situations. Just when you expected the worst of him, Hansen would be considered and conciliatory.

Still, one thing stood out from Foster's media offensive. He talked about the "success" of Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo'unga's playmaking partnership last year and suggested it might remain a staple of the side.

We all wait a little nervously to see what the All Blacks are like, now Foster's been promoted from assistant to head coach.

The team were increasingly found out during the final three seasons of Hansen and Foster's tenure and a bit of change - subtle or otherwise - is required if the All Blacks are to continue being an elite international team.

Sadly, talk of retaining the Barrett-Mo'unga combination only confirmed people's fears Foster's just fine with the status quo.

If only that were good enough. Unfortunately it's far from it, in this era where so much has been sacrificed in the name of All Blacks success.

We need the team to win, and win well, otherwise there's really no point to what New Zealand Rugby (NZR) have done to the game.

Before long we will have First XV rugby - at least in those schools that can afford a rugby programme - and the All Blacks, with next to nothing in between.

Junior club grades are now going 10 a-side. That includes those that were previously 15 a-side, but have been reduced because clubs simply don't have the numbers.

Talk is that adult club rugby will go the same way, given the difficulties in finding 22 or 23 players for every team, every week.

You go 10 a-side and that's the end of 'The Game For All New Zealand' as rugby once declared itself. No matter what your background, or your size and weight, rugby once had a place for you. Not any more, now we're going to glorified Sevens.

Clubs are dying and face merging, or winding up entirely, unless things change.

New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson.

New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson has walked into a baptism of fire, according to Hamish Bidwell. Photo: Photosport

But the death of those institutions means the death of the game and, without getting too corny, a way of life. Rugby clubs have genuinely brought communities together and given a sense of belonging to so many immigrant families from places such as the Pacific and South Africa.

Hopefully junior clubs can survive - if only to service First XVs - but increasingly the model is that elite schoolboy players are contracted direct to Super Rugby franchises, without having played any club or provincial footy. We know adult club and Mitre 10 Cup rugby aren't what they were, but now the Super stuff might be in peril too.

South Africa television network Supersport effectively underwrites rugby in this country. But, if the rumours are true, South Africa Rugby are planning to leave Sanzaar - and existing partners New Zealand, Australia and Argentina - in favour of competitions in Europe.

Already NZR have forecast a deficit of $30 million over the next five years. Lose Supersport, who pay the lion's share of the Sanzaar broadcast deal, and NZR are in real strife.

The game has to be about more than just the All Blacks, and the players' huge salaries, otherwise there won't be a game at all.

Challenges abound at every level of rugby in this country. Player numbers are dropping, revenue (beyond broadcast deals) is very hard to generate and fans are hardly flocking to games either.

You hope NZR have plans in place to help the game prosper, or at least survive should South Africa leave us to it. But then these are the same folk who decided Ian Foster would bring innovation and renewal to the All Blacks.

Judging by Foster's first media foray, we're all in a heap of trouble.

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