Pro­fes­sional rugby grows into adult­hood


Sports talk There’s not the same buzz for Su­per Rugby as there was in those days of Fitzy, Zinny, Jonah and Tana.

Su­per Rugby has come of age, and my, how it’s grown. It doesn’t seem 21 sea­sons ago since rugby en­tered a bold, pro­fes­sional era with the in­tro­duc­tion of the Su­per 12.

That com­pe­ti­tion evolved from the ama­teur South Pa­cific Cham­pi­onship, and the Su­per 6 and Su­per 10 com­pe­ti­tions.

But it was dif­fer­ent – it was pro­fes­sional. Play­ers were guar­an­teed at least $65,000 a year. A ref­eree like Paddy O’Brien could earn $45,000.

The play­ers loved it. As Auck­land Blues (the teams had ge­o­graphic tags back then) cap­tain Zin­zan Brooke said af­ter the open­ing match: ‘‘At least it’s a pay­day now.’’

In the early years there was great crowd sup­port and tele­vi­sion au­di­ences were strong.

The first pro­fes­sional match was Welling­ton Hur­ri­canes v Auck­land Blues at the Palmer­ston North Show­grounds, which begs the ques­tion: why not play your open­ing match in a ma­jor sta­dium in a main city?

The Blues fielded a team of All Blacks, Zin­zan and Robin Brooke, Sean Fitzpa­trick, Jonah Lomu, Michael Jones and Olo Brown among them. The Hur­ri­canes were led by Norm He­witt and had fire­power too, in­clud­ing Chris­tian Cullen, Alama Ieremia, Tana Umaga and Bull Allen.

Ieremia scored the first try, but the Blues won 36-28, hav­ing trailed un­til the 75th minute.

The power-packed Blues were favourites to win the Su­per ti­tle, and duly de­liv­ered. The Hur­ri­canes were at odds of 66:1. The bookies know their stuff – the Hur­ri­canes still haven’t won the com­pe­ti­tion.

About 13,000 peo­ple turned up in Palmer­ston North and they loved the fast, open rugby.

Amaz­ingly, the Cru­saders, who have be­come the great team of Su­per Rugby, with seven ti­tles, fin­ished last in 1996.

New Zealand teams have dom­i­nated. Be­sides the Cru­saders, the Blues have won three times, the Chiefs twice and the High­landers once.

South African sides have won only three of the 20 ti­tles, all by the Bulls. For Aus­tralia, the Brumbies twice, Waratahs and Reds have had vic­to­ri­ous sea­sons.

New Zealand’s dom­i­na­tion ex­tends to in­di­vid­ual record­hold­ers. Most games – Keven Mealamu, 175. Most con­sec­u­tive games – Caleb Ralph, 104. Most points – Daniel Carter, 1708. Most tries – Doug Howlett, 59. Most penal­ties – An­drew Mehrtens, 202. Most con­ver­sions – Carter, 185.

The Su­per 12 ex­panded to Su­per 14 in 2006 and Su­per 15 in 2011. Now there are 18 teams. Five coun­tries, in­clud­ing Ar­gentina and Ja­pan, are in­volved. The tele­vi­sion au­di­ence ex­tends to more than 50 coun­tries.

That first match in Palmer­ston North took place on March 1 , but the com­pe­ti­tion be­gan even ear­lier af­ter that un­til in 2007 it kicked off on Fe­bru­ary 2: peak sum­mer. It used to fin­ish in May, but now it ex­tends un­til Au­gust.

Some say rugby of­fi­cials are killing the goose that lays the golden egg, that rugby has reached sat­u­ra­tion point.

Cer­tainly there’s not the same buzz for Su­per Rugby as there was in those days of Fitzy, Zinny, Jonah and Tana.

But at the busi­ness end of the com­pe­ti­tion, the fer­vour is un­de­ni­ably there – think back to the in­tense in­ter­est last year in that crack­ing High­lander­sHur­ri­canes fi­nal.

The rugby ad­min­is­tra­tors who de­signed the Su­per 12 in 1996 would surely be proud to see how their baby has grown into a full adult.


Zin­zan Brooke leads the Auck­land Blues on to the Palmer­ston North Show­grounds on March 1, 1996, to kick off the pro­fes­sional rugby era.

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