- By Kevin McCarthy
I used to live in Auckland for a few years. I used to meet people there who literally had no conception there was a country below the Manukau Harbour. And certainly, they could find no reason to go there. They’d go to Melbourne a lot though.
Well, they’ll be well served with watching women’s rugby world cup, which starts a little over a week from now. Charged with spreading the gospel worldwide, it will limit its reach within New Zealand to . . . Auckland and Northland.
The reasons are not surprising. In bidding, New Zealand went for an option that saved money and that it thought would still see reasonable crowds. It also had the pandemic monster lurking later on – so centralising had a certain logic.
Yet there’s also a nagging undercurrent that while wanting the tournament, New Zealand Rugby wasn’t exactly keeping its eye on the ball. The national team was going into a tailspin of poor performance. Its humiliation was completed in the UK and France before some very healthy local audiences.
The penny dropped – and one suspects only because one former player had the courage to speak out about her time within that ill-fated squad – that it was crisis time, playing wise. The emergency arrival of the Wizard and others has given the Black Ferns hope, and a strategy, to make a successful defence. And if not, to go down all guns firing.
But let’s return to those healthy audiences. Women’s tests in France and England are now easily drawing 10 thousand plus. Not stellar of course by men’s standards. But huge rises in historical terms, and when the UK hosts the next WWC it aims to fill Twickenham – 82,000 thousand seats.
If you don’t believe that will happen, you weren’t watching the England women’s team winning the Euro Championship this year. For a nation that just doesn’t win much, that was a big deal.
Back to New Zealand, where its too late for any pennies to drop – that of course, as anyone can tell you now, the world cup matches should have been spread much more widely.
Going by the New Zealand experience in hosting male world cups, the fear that pool games not involving the home side or just visiting sides would be fizzers, proved to be false. The policy of getting smaller provinces to adopt their visiting sides, and get the home crowds to do the same, worked very well.
That same sort of community buy-in and good old fashioned Kiwi hospitality would have worked in the WWC.
Instead, there will be a risk of burnout, and low turnout, for any games that don’t involve the Black Ferns.
The defence of hindsight works here of course. No-one at the time of bidding could necessarily know what 2022 would look like. But it also feels like a paucity of ambition was baked in at the start.
For a sport struggling to keep and regenerates its roots, the women’s game is essential to grow. It’s got a great local pool of personable players, able to articulate very well, and be the sort of household name recognition asset that rugby needs. Compared to the stilted atmosphere around the All Blacks, it’s breath of fresh air.
Thankfully all the home side’s games will be free to air, including the knockout games. I predict those are going to have very high viewership, and well, hey commercially savvy New Zealand Rugby, which is where money gravitates.
Fantastic first up defence of the Shield by the Lions. They were not over-awed by the occasion and instead turned the blow torch on Waikato, who wilted.
It would be interesting to see what the game would have gone like without the Shield being involved. I bet it would have been much closer.
There’s no doubting the Shield can be a great lifter of sides. But once it becomes a burden to defend, then like the Ring, it’s best be gone. Here’s hoping the Lions don’t reach that stage too quickly in 2023.
Just a short comment on the All Blacks.
It’s ludicrous to pronounce them as back to the side of old, back to feared contenders for the Rugby World Cup.
Thanks to one refereeing call, in Bled 1, the team moved from what would have been a public relynching to instead hailing a turning point
But the Wallabies are no yardstick for the rugby world cup. Nor are perhaps the aging Springboks.
So big ups to New Zealand and Ian Foster for turning around an existential crisis and making some big strides to being contenders.
But the report card can’t be in until after the Northern Tour.