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Some fans would say that New Zealand rugby league is currently enjoying a boom period. There was huge media and public interest when the Warriors reached the NRL grand final in 2002, and now that the Warriors look likely to again make the top 8 (for the third consecutive year), New Zealand rugby league fans have a competitive side to watch week in, week out, in the world?s best rugby league competition. Surely this is what the fans and administrators hoped for when the Warriors played their first game in 1995.
The Kiwi national team has a host of talent playing at a high level to choose from, with New Zealand players a feature throughout not only the NRL, but also the Premier League, Jim Beam Cup, Jersey Flegg, and SG Ball. New Zealanders feature heavily in the English Super League, where Bradford alone relies heavily on Robbie Paul, Joe Vagana, Tevita Vaikona, Lesley Vainokolo, and Shontayne Hape.
Despite all this, the Kiwis are still very much underdogs whenever they take on the Kangaroos, and rightly so. Why haven?t the Kiwis made up ground, considering the influx of New Zealand players into the worlds best competitions?
New Zealand is able to pick a side made up only of NRL players, but that only makes comparison with the Australian side easier. Recent debutants Jason Cayless and Paul Rauhihi would never realistically command the attention of Australian selectors. A New Zealand NRL team will always be second best when compared with an Australian team. There are obvious reasons for this- the NRL is predominantly made up of Australian players. The Kiwis are a team full of players brought up in the Australian system, with Australian coaches and coaching methods, but many are simply inferior players.
It wasn?t always like this. The 1980s was a recent benchmark for New Zealand rugby league to aspire to. Wins over Australia in 1983,1985 and 1987 made the 1980s possibly the greatest ever rugby league era in New Zealand, especially in terms of public interest. Importantly, there was thriving domestic competition- the Auckland Club competition was often prominent in the New Zealand Herald, while games attracted bumper crowds. The semi-finals and final of the National Club competition received full television coverage in 1985 and 1986. What was perhaps most notable was the quality of players on show- the Te Atatu team that defeated Mt Albert in the 1986 National Final featured no less than seven Kiwis.
Unfortunately, domestic competition in New Zealand has deteriorated rapidly. The Bartercard Cup has been a relatively successful initiative, although the coverage it receives is miniscule- only Warriors curtain raisers and the grand final receive television coverage. The once strong Auckland club competition must be one of the few sporting competitions in the world that has actually gone from professional to amateur since the 1980s. I have anecdotal evidence of the decreasing standard of the Auckland competition- my 44-year-old father was shocked to see, when at a recent game, one of his old teammates commanding a starting position in a premier grade side. This player, pushing 40, had been a reserve grader in the 1980s.
Sure, the Warriors? deeds might inspire a few Kiwi kids to take up league, but if they?re not budding superstars, what will keep them in the game? Playing club league is no longer any incentive. Apart from the Warriors, all New Zealand teams are now essentially feeder clubs, and what motivation is there to play for a feeder club if you?re not destined for the NRL or ESL? Certainly the prospect of playing at the top level will excite a number of youngsters, but why would they want to join a club when they see the poor standard of play, even in the clubs premier team?
It is all very well focusing on the top level, but the NZRL need to take steps to encourage grassroots development. If playing for a local club is not an attractive prospect, then the number of rugby league players in New Zealand is unlikely to ever increase substantially. An injection of cash into club sides is necessary, if only to make playing for a New Zealand club seem as enticing to a promising junior as playing for a Jersey Flegg or SG Ball team. If the quality of rugby league at a local level doesn?t improve, New Zealand league is destined to stagnate regardless of any Warriors success.
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