The Super Rugby season has ended – “long live the Crusaders!” That was the call of fans, and with the street parade only just finished in Christchurch, reflection on a valiant International franchise [club] season is concluded. So too, New Zealand Rugby shifts focus towards International rugby now, and toward a Women’s Rugby World Cup.
A significant focus-shift has been placed on the Black Ferns. Currently assembled in Ireland for the pinnacle event of the sport. But, also positioned in a prime place by the national body. That is out of respect, for the women’s achievements in years past and the growth of the demographic.
That attention does indicate that their ‘slip up’ in 2014 was felt deeply by New Zealand Rugby (NZR). A worthy ideal too, in their support to making a claim for the Women’s Rugby World Cup (WRWC2017) title. Either Men’s or Women’s, this country who hold rugby dearest, believe every effort should be made to defend, win or [in the Black Ferns case]reclaim the World Championship title.
Women’s Rugby World Cup – August 9, Ireland
That focus is justified as well, because the women’s game is strong. As the men quite rightly have won back-to-back titles, the women hold multiple reigns holding the WRWC2017. Indeed, the fact the Black Ferns had no place in the semifinals of 2014, would have been an instrument for the goals and programs developed domestically.
The Farah Palmer Cup will not begin until after the women return from the World Cup, but in it’s first two years it has re-focused NZR toward women’s representation. With Dr Farah palmer assuming a place on the NZR board, it is a credible appointment.
Competed for by nine provincial unions, the FPC is being enjoyed by fans on the ground and on pay TV. To the benefit of last years tournament, the level of competitiveness has increased and that will show at this year’s WRWC2017.
Not to mention the Women’s Sevens Series. Winners of the 2016/17 season, the Black Fern Sevens team is as respected domestically. Returning to the podium after missing gold at the Rio Olympics, and with several leading sevens players a part of the XV’s team WRWC2017 squad, their professional attitude will be a great asset.
The Rugby Championship Squad Announced
Only a day after the Super Rugby final, the All Blacks selectors announced the 33 man squad. Enjoying a two day camp over the week prior; for players not involved in the final, players were put through their paces. And after gathering that evidence, Steve Hansen made the call on several positions.
Among the most talked about decision, was the omission of Julian Savea. The left wing has seen some inconsistent selection for the Hurricanes. The All Blacks are the most competitive environment, so Savea’s loss was his team mate Nehe Milner-Skudder’s gain.
All Blacks Head Coach Steve Hansen said: “Firstly, we congratulate all players selected for the Investec Rugby Championship, particularly Nepo and Nehe, who we welcome back. Conversely, we commiserate with those who have missed out, particularly Julian Savea and the unlucky Matt Todd, both of whom have made great contributions to the All Blacks jersey.”
Nepo Laulala (see above image) has been called up, due to good form and to cover for the loss of Charlie Faumuina and the nursing of Owen Franks’ injury. That allowed for an additional prop to be added. The All Blacks selectors have also named an apprentice. 22-year-old Chiefs and Waikato and former New Zealand Under 20 prop Atu Moli, who will assemble and train with the squad during the All Blacks’ home test weeks.
The squad is as follows (with province, Investec Super Rugby team and Test caps in brackets):
Dane Coles (Wellington/Hurricanes, 49)
Nathan Harris (Bay of Plenty/Chiefs, 8)
Codie Taylor (Canterbury/Crusaders, 19)
Wyatt Crockett (Canterbury/Crusaders, 62)
Owen Franks (Canterbury/Crusaders, 94)
Nepo Laulala (Counties Manukau/Chiefs, 4)
Joe Moody (Canterbury/Crusaders, 28)
Ofa Tu’ungafasi (Auckland/Blues, 4)
Scott Barrett (Taranaki/Crusaders, 8)
Brodie Retallick (Hawke’s Bay/Chiefs, 64)
Luke Romano (Canterbury/Crusaders, 26)
Samuel Whitelock (Canterbury/Crusaders, 88)
Sam Cane (Bay of Plenty/Chiefs, 44)
Vaea Fifita (Wellington/Hurricanes, 1)
Jerome Kaino (Auckland/Blues, 74)
Kieran Read, captain (Counties Manukau/ Crusaders, 100)
Ardie Savea (Wellington/Hurricanes, 16)
Liam Squire (Tasman/Highlanders, 8)
Tawera Kerr-Barlow (Waikato/Chiefs, 25)
TJ Perenara (Wellington/Hurricanes, 33)
Aaron Smith (Manawatu/Highlanders, 62)
Beauden Barrett (Taranaki/Hurricanes, 53)
Lima Sopoaga (Southland/Highlanders, 7)
Ryan Crotty (Canterbury/Crusaders, 27)
Ngani Laumape (Manawatu/Hurricanes, 2)
Anton Lienert-Brown (Waikato/Chiefs, 13)
Sonny Bill Williams (Counties Manukau/Blues, 36)
Jordie Barrett (Taranaki/Hurricanes, 2)
Israel Dagg (Hawke’s Bay/Crusaders, 65)
Rieko Ioane (Auckland/Blues, 4)
Nehe Milner-Skudder (Manawatu/Hurricanes, 8)
Waisake Naholo (Taranaki/Highlanders, 13)
Ben Smith (Otago/Highlanders, 62)
Utility back / Replacement
Damian McKenzie (Waikato/Chiefs, 2)
“The first two Bledisloe Cup matches will set the tone, as we know the Australians will throw everything at us.”
“While we’re expecting the South Africans and Argentinians to be as bruising and physical as always. We’ve learnt since the introduction of Argentina that there is a massive travelling component to the Championship, which comes at a cost at the end of the year, so we’ll be looking to implement some new strategies to try and overcome that.”
New Zealand Rugby Shift Focus Towards International Rugby
Hansen said the All Blacks were again looking forward to the first two Bledisloe Cup matches, and The Rugby Championship home and away fixtures. That will see matches in Dunedin, New Plymouth and on Auckland’s North Shore. Fixtures away from those used for the recent Lions tour, to distribute matches to the regions–certainly the best way to gain the focus of ‘the rest of the country’.
NZR has a role to play in sharing the experience throughout the country. The same applies to every rugby nation. While Twickenham, Stade de France, Murrayfield and even Newlands in South Africa, seem to host test matches regularly, the regions miss out.
So it is a responsibility to distribute games. Australia held a test in Perth in 2016, as well as Sydney and Brisbane. And even while they have internal issues, games held in a variety of centres benefits the game as a whole.
In New Zealand, that means that Forsyth-Barr Stadium–arguably the best rugby ground in the country–earns a Bledisloe Cup match. And for the men’s and women’s game, a focus on growing the game by embracing all regions, is a critical point of attention.
NZR Must Engage, and Listen, to all Stakeholders
Discussion points must also be raised with NZR. Not every decision or policy is as popular as the All Blacks winning percentage – so with the accolades, come the criticism. Gladly, chief executive Steve Tew spoke with RadioSport on Sunday, to address several recent news stories.
From that discussion, good and bad may be learned. SANZAAR is bigger than the New Zealand game of course. It’s issues are different: broadcast rights and distribution of the wealth generated by the game supports the women’s and men’s teams across the four partners. Sponsorship, marketing and promotion can see many rewards. While positive, any sub-issues come along too with that partnership.
Success on the field, but controversy off of it, can be a conflicting position. Tew may find that dwindling viewers and less spectators is driven by modern lifestyles. Changes in patterns or viewership, the lacklustre expansion of Super Rugby; all external pressures that should be focused on….however, the local game is in a strong place.
Heartland Championship and Mitre 10 Cup Ready to Blast Off!
Even with the viewer metrics, the smaller centres enjoy Heartland Championship games–and would enjoy more premier Mitre 10 Cup fixtures too if distributed evenly. The popular Meads Cup and Lochore Cup competition is rugby at it’s grassroots level.
Even while it is popular in most areas, it might not be as visible in the big cities. So, an empty Eden Park might be symptomatic of Auckland’s attitude to rugby – not those of Masterton or King Country.
So the balance is key. Even as observers see New Zealand Rugby shift focus towards International Rugby, it too must pay full attention to the regions. While success in both might be an exemplar model, by looking across the Tasman, administrators can determine what ‘not to do’.
Will New Zealand Again Rule the Rugby World?
For the Women’s Rugby World Cup, the competition is spread across six to eight teams. Of course, a powerful display in their pool may promote the Black Ferns. But, they must remove any complacency. Alertness to any and all situations is the key.
The All Blacks may be under pressure. Australia have nothing to lose, Argentina are very close to their debut win and South Africa will be boosted by the Lions high finish. A loss, or more than one loss is not out of the question.
But the competition will bring out the best in both the women’s and the men’s teams.
“Main photo credit”
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