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Take the blinkers off

Eketahuna struggled as a one team club when hit with injuries. PHOTO/FILE

It’s time to call time on Council of Clubs
Premier rugby needs quick fix

I fear for the future of our club rugby.

“How can you say that when we’ve just had the best premier competition for years?” you might reply.

Yes, the standard was the highest for quite some time, the Lane Penn Trophy ‘Town and Country’ was a success, and seven of the eight teams were in contention for the top four heading into the final round.

But take a closer look. At least two teams, Eketahuna and Gladstone, survived on threadbare squads, and East Coast and Martinborough had severe injury crises for much of the season.

Most weeks, when preparing previews of the weekend games, the casualty ward was usually the first topic discussed, and invariably the list of walking wounded was lengthy.

How those clubs managed to maintain their form, and in the case of East Coast and Gladstone, make the semifinals is mindboggling.

It was testament to the hard work of their coaching and management teams and the commitment of players to “bleed” for their clubs.

But how long can the likes of Eketahuna and Gladstone continue to exist with a lack of numbers and ageing squads, with many of the current crop veterans or approaching veteran status?

An Eketahuna stalwart has told me on more than one occasion over the past few seasons that if it weren’t for the Manawatu-based players, the club wouldn’t have a team.

Some of our clubs will need a lot of hard work off-season to field strong and competitive teams in 2022.

That again raises the question, is an eight-team competition the ideal mix or is it time to consider six teams in the premier grade, with a genuine six-team second division, with automatic promotion-relegation between the two?

Or is there another option?

A former Wai-Bush representative player raised the issue with me last weekend and queried why a club such as Masterton Red Star, who won the Ryan Cup senior reserve championship, cannot be given a crack at premier club rugby without going through a ridiculously one-sided promotion-relegation game.

The rules for such a game favour the premier team, who retain their place with a draw, and the game is played under Premier Grade rules. In contrast, senior reserve games have scrummaging restrictions and rolling substitutions.

That makes it nigh impossible to gain promotion. And now Masterton Red Star fears their crop of players will be cherry-picked by other clubs – precisely what happened after the club won the 2017 Ryan Cup and were well beaten in the promotion-relegation game by East Coast.

The player’s main gripe is that it is a very exclusive model to gain premier status, not inclusive.

He suggests a similar format to Wellington Rugby, where every club has the chance to play premier rugby, with an all-in first-round before splitting into the top Jubilee Cup and second-tier Hardham Cup competitions.

Whatever your preference, change is unlikely while the club competitions are run by the Council of Clubs – a body that I have never placed much faith in since its introduction in the mid-2000s.

That is because this body consists of club delegates charged with looking after their own patch, and despite their protestations to the contrary, not what is best for rugby.

The council could argue that if “it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. But based on the state of some clubs, it will soon be broke, and there won’t be time to fix it.

It’s time for the Wai-Bush board to show some leadership and take back control of club rugby so that it is run in the best interests of all without the blinkered objectives of club delegates.

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