Carting it up with Stevo

I was perusing the NZ newspapers online the other day (a sad reflection of my life) and an article or two popped up about the state of Rugby League in the land of the long white cloud.

It seems that the trials many of the Australian Super 14 teams are facing, that is, poor crowds made worse by relatively boring and ineffective Rugby, have made their way to the Rugby heartland of New Zealand.

While it's true that the All Blacks are still number one in NZ, the same cannot be said for their Super 14 offspring. Crowds are down and the press aren't filling their back pages with Rugby as automatically as they did in the past. Suddenly the once unthinkable is taking place; pubs are choosing to show NZ Warriors games live over their local Super 14 teams.

Make no mistake - I'm not trying to bash Rugby. The sport is a religion in NZ and will always enjoy the upper hand. A comparison between NZ Rugby and the NZ Warriors is much more about highlighting the efforts of the Warriors coaches, administrators and players than a swipe at the 15-a-side crowd.

The Warriors have done some great things lately. Their home crowds average above 20,000 after 4 games, up 8,000 on last years figures. The re-signing of Stacey Jones has been a reasonable success on the field and, I suspect, a roaring success for the clubs marketing manager.

According to an excellent article by Steve Kilgallon in the Sunday Star Times, it is the progress the Warriors are making under the surface that is the most significant. Like in greater Sydney and other parts (Newcastle and Wollongong to name two), Rugby League has always been perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a working class code in Auckland.

Subsequently many corporates have given them plenty of distance when handing out their sponsorship dollars. The perception that Rugby was the ultimate NZ sport led to everyone seeing Rugby League as second class - something you do if you haven't got a Rugby ticket.

However things have changed and a Warriors clash is now arguably the biggest ticket in the top end of town as well as the bottom. The result is new spectators are being exposed to the game in NZ and, while the team is winning, they are enjoying being along for the ride. And that is a key issue, what happened when the Warriors lose a few more games, or when the All Blacks international season begins?

Who knows. In the past the Warriors have always endured a topsy-turvy existence: fluctuating crowds, insolvency and debate (usually in Sydney) about their relevance in the competition. While many of these issues have already been resolved, a fresh spike in interest may be just what the club needs to cement their place in the NRL elite.