For years there was a saying around the New Zealand rugby community, that ‘when Auckland is strong, the All Blacks are strong’. And it makes sense – the Auckland catchment area is far and away the largest in the country. The population, the talent pool, and the resources at the Auckland Rugby Union’s disposal are almost equal to the rest of the country’s combined, so it seems reasonable to think that a strong Auckland side reflects strength in New Zealand rugby, and conversely a weak Auckland side would signal a lack of depth or talent.
However, times have changed, and the Blues, the region’s flagship side, are visiting new lows every week as their Super 15 campaign goes from bad, to worse, to downright diabolical.
So what is wrong with Auckland rugby? What has conspired against New Zealand’s biggest rugby union, and derailed the once seemingly unstoppable machine that blew away everyone in its path?
As when all large organisations visit hard times, we must ask questions of the power-brokers at Auckland Rugby. While much has been said about the soon-to-be ex-coach Pat Lam, and even the possibility that an excessive Polynesian influence is effecting the team’s results, the fact of the matter is that suit-wearing, office-dwelling individuals at Auckland RFU headquarters are hiring these coaches, signing these players, and dictating the future of the union.
Auckland Rugby has always had an air of being an ‘Old Boys’ society, where you were either on the inside and in the know, or very much out of the loop. You could see it in the halcyon days of the late 80’s and early 90’s, when Sean Fitzpatrick and the Brooke brothers not only dominated the Auckland scene, but were also the Alpha-males of the All Blacks.
And to this day the Auckland Rugby Union is run by people who came through this era, and it seems the same culture has thrived, where those that know the right people are very much in favor, and those that don’t simply aren’t in the picture.
Auckland has a huge catchment area, and just by strength of population should produce the most talent each year. But the number of disgruntled, indeed disillusioned, young players in New Zealand’s largest city is mind boggling. Much of this can be attributed to the shallow promises the powers-that-be throw around. While one 18 year old ‘rising star’ is being told he is their ‘go-to man’, the kid they see as the future of Auckland Rugby, 10 other youngsters are being told exactly the same thing. When push comes to shove a couple of years later 10 out of 11 of these talented players are suddenly realising they’ve been strung along, and that there isn’t actually a career path for them.
That wouldn’t be so hard to stomach if the ARFU were keeping the very best talent. Afterall, that’s professional sport, and being knocked back and overlooked is part and parcel of the decision these guys make to pursue a career in Rugby. But the mediocre, run-of-the-mill players that the Blues trundle out each week suggests something more sinister is going on, and that some of these young guys never, ever stood a chance of securing a contract, no matter how well they played as they came through the age-group teams.
As a sport which is a baby in terms of professionalism, rugby is fast evolving and ever-changing, and to succeed in this contemporary age requires the ability to think outside the square, to be innovative, and prepared to move with the times. But under the influence of ex-players such as Andy Dalton and Gary Whetton it seems apparent that Auckland Rugby is content to stay with the tried and true principals that made it a super-power more than two decades ago, rather than accepting that the landscape has changed, and that so too must their mindset.
Without a doubt New Zealand’s largest Rugby Union is in crisis, and before things are set straight at the top they won’t improve on the pitch. With old ways of thinking seemingly so entrenched into the day to day running of Auckland Rugby it seems only a mass clear-out of those in charge can turn their fortunes around.
Thankfully for New Zealand Rugby the fortunes of the All Blacks no long rely solely on the quality of players produced in Auckland.
Guest Author: Tim Cronin