Tuesday, 12 March 2013

a worrying- if understandable- lack of depth in NZ rugby

The performance of the NZ super rugby teams over the opening rounds of the competition has reignited a question about player depth in New Zealand. At All Back level there has always been a question of depth in certain positions at particular times- some years at lock, others at first-five, currently at centre and hooker. Yet there have been very few seasons when the overall quality of the All Blacks has been in doubt resulting in the question as to whether they can competently and consistently compete at International level.  In fact it is interesting how often the excuse for failing to win at previous World Cups came down to anything but player depth and competency.

This year however we may need to start thinking about an overall lack of depth across New Zealand rugby to consistently achieve success at Super Rugby. Can New Zealand actually provide 5 quality teams? Do we have the depth? Is this actually where the player drain overseas hits the hardest? Player drain is not an issue at the level of the All Blacks for in the end all that is needed is a quality player in each of the 15 positions and hopefully an adequate backup. We are not yet in a position whereby we do not have 15 All-Black quality players- even though sometimes we have weaknesses within a position and within the larger squad. 

The issue currently facing New Zealand is whether we can truly sustain 5 Super Rugby teams- and in fact, whether we actually should? 
 The problem facing all the franchises is that of choosing a team- in competition from 4 other franchises, from a limited pool of players. It has become quickly and cruelly evident that there is now a  huge leap in quality and performance expected between ITM and Super rugby. The gap between these competitions is nowhere more evident than in the differing performances of the Crusaders and Canterbury. The dominance of Canterbury at ITM Cup does not translate into dominance at Super Rugby. This is surely a very worrying sign regarding the gap between the two competitions. Canterbury has been increasingly caught out by believing the gap can be easily crossed with most of the same players. More widely, many players who perform well at ITM level are increasingly out of their depth at Super Rugby level.  Furthermore, when Super Rugby players head overseas, or relocate franchises within New Zealand, there is increasingly an issue of depth to replace them.

  So, what if we retracted to 4 Super rugby teams? Australia likewise needs to retract to three. South Africa seems to have handled their issues with the threat of relegation, but we need to locate South African rugby with its depth, finances, crowds and internal competitions outside the debates on depth in New Zealand and Australia.  What advantage is there- especially for New Zealand, to have underperforming teams, exposing the lack of depth? Do we need an intermediate tier competition that sits between Super Rugby and ITM Cup? Or do we need a tier one and tier two competition within super rugby itself?

What is evident is that many players are making a leap into - or staying within - Super Rugby who are clearly not really up to Super Rugby standard. It is always easiest to blame coaching for poor performances- yet usually we blame the coach if a team loses and praise the players if the team wins.
 Good coaching can make good players better- and can create a team that plays more than the sum of its parts. Yet too often it appears that we are trying to turn base metals into gold- and coaches are not  alchemists. What needs to be urgently reconsidered is player development and how to overcome the gap between ITM cup and Super rugby. The expansion and continuation of the current number of franchises is in the end a financial decisions. More Teams means more games to cover, more crowds to sell to. This is a global problem with the mediaization of professional sport. In the end the sport and teams are a product to sell. Yet if the product is one that declines in quality, that declines in performance, then the customer (the supporter) decides to send their money and time elsewhere.

Central to the experience of the fan is the emotion of a tribal identity- and this is where super rugby is increasingly failing in NZ. The Crusaders thrived upon such a tribal identity for a number of years as we became accustomed to the realities of professional rugby. But in professional sport we need to remember that the tribe is the supporters - not the team itself. The mistake the Crusaders have made is that of confusing the notion of the tribe with the team. The Highlanders also did this with their emphasis on Otago and Sothland  ITM players. And yet, we must also remember that not only is this a question over where players are drawn from, it is, in the end, that of how many quality players are available.

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