Phil Gifford: The obvious solution to farcical New Zealand Rugby mess

OPINION:

Taranaki coach Neil Barnes is right. The set-up of our national provincial championship is farcical.

Let’s spell out the ludicrous scenario as it stands in 2021. There are two divisions in the NPC. The top group of seven teams in the premiership, and the second tier group of seven teams in the championship.

The names of the two pools are themselves kind of crazy (most of us would think a championship was the top of the tree, not the branch below), but wait, there’s more.

Taranaki lead the second string competition, and in the process have beaten the leading three sides in the so-called top group, Hawke’s Bay (33-19), Waikato (33-26), and Wellington (32-26).

No question then that the best provincial team in the country is Taranaki, but, because Covid has wrecked Auckland’s season, there won’t be any promotion-relegation this year.

So it’s little wonder Barnes, a straight shooting dairy farmer, was moved to say he was bitterly disappointed by the axing of promotion-relegation, that the decision was “ridiculous”, and it appeared the opinions of unions outside the big cities “didn’t matter a s***.”

I’m 100 percent with Barnes when he says the answer is blindingly obvious: Call it a championship, and play it in 2022 with 14 teams. The cross pool games are bizarre, and this year have made a mockery of the whole two tier system.

Covid is to blame for the Auckland situation, but the national provincial structure itself is deeply flawed.

Rugby in a time of plague

Having parked on Wrights Rd, walking distance from Orangetheory Stadium in Christchurch on Saturday afternoon I was initially impressed with the stream of cars pouring into the car parks, apparently heading to the Hawke’s Bay-Canterbury game.

It soon became clear that in fact the vast majority were there for drive through vaccinations at the Christchurch Arena, part of the 17,090 injections in Canterbury on Super Saturday.

The rugby crowd itself was also dictated to a large degree by Covid. No tickets for the socially spaced seats were sold to the public, but 1000 free double passes had been given to those vaccinated during the week.

The Bay has some smooth operators

While the 45-26 loss to Hawke’s Bay would have felt a little like a second round of needles for Canterbury fans, the upside was that on a firm field with sun on their backs, there were several flashes of the brilliance that have made the Bay such a pleasure to watch in the last two seasons.

Take as a prime example the try to flanker Josh Kaifa in the 39th minute. It started inside the Bay half, and over 10 phases and 19 slick passes Canterbury’s defence was stretched and finally snapped.

In the process there was a lot to admire, but the high point was probably the confidence and skill show by second-five Danny Toala, and centre Stacey Ili, throwing successive back of the hand passes to keep potential tacklers on the back foot.

Remember the name

No wonder former Tasman boss Tony Lewis was so keen to sign Bay coach Mark Ozich to be attack coach at the Western Force in Perth next year. Because he was never a top level player Ozich possibly doesn’t attract the attention coaches who had once played test rugby do, but when he was a teacher, and coached, at Hastings Boys’ High School he took them to national titles. He’s getting the same levels of excellence from Hawke’s Bay. Time at the Force for the 42-year-old may be a step on the way to much higher honours.

And remember this date

On Sunday morning, November 14, New Zealand time, the All Blacks will play Ireland in Dublin, and then, in a game that should be just as fascinating, Australia play England at Twickenham.

To English media and fans the stardust around coach Eddie Jones has long since faded. If he was a football manager Jones would have been sacked after England finished second to last in the 2021 Six Nations. Former England first-five Stuart Barnes, one of the most considered critics in Britain, was moved to write that “Jones’ cheap talk has crossed the line. Time to go.”

But Fast Eddie somehow survived, although England’s rugby bosses now have a secret panel to analyse every move his team makes.

What adds such an edge to the game with the Wallabies is that Jones will be matching wits with a coach on the rise in Dave Rennie. Australia showed in the Rugby Championship they could deal with the bludgeoning tactics of South Africa. How Jones and England, whose tactics usually favour the Springbok model,react to a side as enterprising as the Wallabies will give us all a yardstick as where not only Jones, but also Rennie, are progressing with a World Cup just two years away.

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