On Saturday, All Black captain Sam Cane made his debut appearance for King Country, in the lower depths of New Zealand Rugby’s Heartland Championship, playing 57 minutes in their 13-48 loss to Whanganui.
These were not normal circumstances. Cane has been on a long path to recovery from a shoulder and pectoral muscle injury, and prior to re-joining the All Blacks for their tour of the USA and UK, needed to satisfy himself and coach Ian Foster of his fitness.
A quirk of the draw saw Cane’s NPC province Bay of Plenty on a bye week, but a couple of phone calls and some hastily drawn paperwork soon had him fitted up in a maroon and gold jersey, attending Thursday night training, in the rural outpost of Mangakino.
This ‘riches to rags’ story is tempered by Cane himself hailing from Reperoa, another small forestry and farming town. He’s no Meghan Markle, sliding out of a special edition, eco-friendly Range Rover, wondering how to recharge the battery. Indeed, if you could nominate the one current All Black that would nestle comfortably into a rag-bag selection of farmers, railway workers and stock agents, it would be Cane.
But the story is fascinating because of what it says about rugby in 2021, in particular the juxtaposition of rugby as a commercial concern, and as part of the fabric of society in New Zealand towns.
The match was played in Taupo, a lakeside tourist-haven in summer, a hellhole in winter, whenever a southerly belts straight off the volcanoes up the guts of the lake. Previously the bastard child of Hawkes Bay rugby, seen as too distant over a challenging road from Napier, and unwanted by Cane’s Bay of Plenty, Taupo eventually joined up with the King Country rugby union in 1987.
This was soon after the unveiling of Owen Delany Park, a significant upgrade on the old rugby grounds located on Taupo’s main street, an inhospitable patch of dirt which had previously served as the town’s rubbish tip. Good on the council for making it convenient for locals to dump their trash, but cuts and grazes invariably turned septic.
Taupo is also home to some nice golf courses and cricket grounds where, as it happens, I played in the same Midlands XI as Ian Foster, against a Hamilton side containing Warren Gatland. For the record, unlike his recent rugby scorecard, Gatland’s side won.
With Taupo now in the King Country fold, my club side graced the new stadium, and the local hospitality was gratefully accepted when, following up a high kick, the ball ballooned fortuitously off the Taupo fullback’s head, straight into my arms, leaving an easy run to the line and a stroll behind the posts.
What happened then I’ve never forgotten. These were the days when impressionable rugby players, learning from rugby league, instead of forcing the ball down with one hand in the time-honoured way, began to dive or flop to the ground with the ball.
All in the name of ball security, or so I believed. Except the referee had other ideas and, deeming that I was showboating, said, “don’t ever be a smart arse like that again, I’ll penalise you out of the game.”
Sure enough, feeding the next scrum, impeccably straight as always, I was pinged for a crooked feed. And the one after that. Thankfully, we escaped with a win, and that referee can thank his lucky stars YouTube wasn’t around then for me to upload a 62-minute video of his antics.
Cane now joins Colin Meads and Martin Johnson as esteemed international captains to have worn the maroon and gold. Next year, King Country celebrates its centenary and, COVID permitting, I’ll be there to help celebrate, and find out what strategy the local union has for developing King Country’s next All Black.
Perhaps it will be one of the young lads that Cane took time out to hang around with after the match? If so, the player will have to leave home for that to happen, to find a spot in a first division NPC squad, and from there, one of the Super Rugby development squads.
Despite not being able to hold on to their talent, that’s a pathway that nobody in the smaller country unions begrudges. Their sense of ownership of the player never diminishes – think Cane, Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and the Barrett clan and their respective country upbringings. In return, these are invariably men who never forget where they came from, and are all richer for their humble starts.
Of course, this connection to rugby heartland is not unique to New Zealand. It is what is at the core of the game; players from sleepy Fijian villages, crowded South African townships, and misty Welsh coalmining towns, all rooted in rugby’s values, making their way in a professional rugby world that is very different than the one rugby evolved from.
It is also something Australian rugby fans can recognise; witness Wallabies coach Dave Rennie’s emphasis on humility and cultural understanding, and the development of character, alongside the refining of rugby skills and improved conditioning.
All too often we hear of how the professional game has drifted apart from the grassroots. That it is of course true, and while there are first generation professional administrators who undoubtedly turned their back on their core constituency or took them for granted, it is also fair to say that most administrators today understand full well, the need to keep everyone in the game connected.
While Cane’s appearance in Taupo may have arisen out of circumstance, great credit is due to him, the All Blacks, the Bay of Plenty and King Country unions, and the media, for ensuring that the opportunity wasn’t wasted. In doing so, they reminded every rugby fan that while professional rugby might not always be instantly relatable, at the end of the day, we’re all playing and participating in the same game.
Meanwhile, Cane’s All Black predecessor, Kieran Read, enjoyed an interesting week, stepping forward to nominate himself as a coach for the proposed World 12’s tournament.
To be clear, Read has been a wonderful servant for New Zealand rugby. Just like Cane, he has always embraced being a role model for young players. He is humble and thoughtful, and he owes New Zealand rugby and New Zealanders, nothing.
But in his quest to forge a post-retirement career, attaching himself to his former coach Steve Hansen, and the consortium behind the World 12s, the contrast between he and Cane, slogging it out under lights in Mangakino, couldn’t be starker.
So, what is the World 12s and why does it matter?
The proposal anticipates the world’s best 192 players being auctioned off to eight franchises for an annual tournament. Sides will comprise six forwards and six backs, matches will be fifteen minutes each way, and law variations are aimed at de-emphasising scrums and speeding up play.
Organisers claim that many new fans will be attracted to rugby. And, in an effort to appease potential concerns about player welfare, players will be limited to a maximum of 60 minutes of play across the three weeks of the tournament.
Roll out the Swiss cheese.
The group behind Rugby 12s includes former RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie as chairman, with Gareth Davies (former WRU chairman) and Steve Tew (former New Zealand Rugby Union CEO) as non-executive directors. The tournament is backed by a UK-based financial consortium, although as yet there are no details of who makes up the consortium or how much money is involved.
Hansen and 2007 World Cup-winning coach Jake White, have been appointed ambassadors; essentially the foot-soldiers sent out to sell the concept to the rugby media and fan-base.
Consider the role of Ritchie, Davies and Tew. Three of the most senior administrators in the game who, in their capacity as representatives on the World Rugby council, repeatedly failed to broker a global rugby season that would have delivered greater clarity for the sport, more certain financial outcomes for their nations, and real transformation in player welfare.
Now on the outside, though armed with the contacts garnered from their years in official rugby administration, are we supposed to believe that a bulging rugby calendar that has proven hitherto impossible to deflate, now suddenly has sufficient space to accommodate another tournament involving the world’s elite players?
These are men who, it is not unreasonable to assume, have taken their inspiration not from William Webb Ellis, but role models like Lalit Modi, Bernie Ecclestone and Don King.
Comparisons with cricket’s Indian Premier League (IPL) are obvious. Just not necessarily in a good way.
The IPL began in 2008, and now dominates the global cricket calendar. In that time, the amount of Test cricket played has steadily diminished. COVID-19 is undoubtedly a factor, but ask yourself why, in the three years since October 2018, the only Test cricket Australia has played away from home is a single five-match Ashes series against England, in 2019.
The IPL found a niche because India’s BCCI were powerful enough to bulldoze it into the calendar. But crucially, the T20 format offered a point of difference to Test cricket and 50-over one-day cricket. Undoubtedly, new audiences were gained, attracted by the glitz and glamour, and truncated playing times.
Rugby already has a truncated version – Sevens – which provides those points of difference. It offers a global schedule and the credibility – such as it is – of it now being an Olympic sport, for both men and women. Sevens may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but it plays a crucial role in the recruitment and participation of young men and women to the sport in emerging countries.
Its fatal flaw however, is that it doesn’t make people filthy rich.
Nobody ever stopped watching rugby because 80 minutes is too long. There are no credible concerns around players being forced to play for more than 60 minutes across three weeks.
What is true is that some people have stopped watching rugby because of repeated frustration around scrum resets. But is the best way to solve that issue simply to eject big-barrelled prop forwards from the sport altogether?
There’s already a solution for that. It’s called rugby league.
Rugby 12s is a flawed solution for a problem that doesn’t really exist. Unless you count missed revenue opportunities for its backers as a problem.
Have organisers stopped to consider that for every new fan potentially attracted to the sport, how many will be lost? Grassroots lovers of the game made to feel even more detached from the elite, even more disenfranchised by rugby’s fabric being shredded in the name of private enterprise?
The only way Rugby 12’s will gain traction is if enough money can be diverted to the national unions and French and UK club owners for them to agree to release their players. While there is nothing to suggest World Rugby’s imprimatur at this stage, only the blind and naïve would be ruling that out.
For their part, players are understandably reluctant to speak on the record, but they are watching closely.
Take someone like Andrew Kellaway, who earlier this year, snuck quietly back into Melbourne in time to re-join the Rebels for the final part of the season, on a modest contract. A few months later, with a surprise elevation to the Wallabies and seven Test tries under his belt, it isn’t difficult to imagine Kellaway going up at a Rugby 12s auction and having his life changed as a result.
Only the most churlish would deny any player the opportunity to maximise their earnings from rugby while they are able. Ditto Kieran Read in a coaching capacity. But is that sufficient reason for rugby to roll over for anyone who happens to be brandishing a fat chequebook?
In the meantime, fans over the weekend enjoyed some superb rugby, as Hawkes Bay saw off Tasman 34-22 to retain the Ranfurly Shield, and Harlequins staged a stunning comeback to overrun Bristol, 52-24. Nothing broken there.
Harlequins prop Will Collier bought the house down with his dummy and 25m solo run, for his first try in 134 premiership matches. If Rugby 12s was to have its way, he’d be down at the pub with his mates, playing darts.
After years of irrational avoidance, I have finally joined Twitter. Please feel welcome to follow me at @Allanthus