NZ Rugby World - - Gregor Paul - Gre­gor Paul, Edi­tor

IT HAS BEEN A SUR­PRIS­INGLY GOOD, or maybe that should be pro­duc­tive, 12 months for rugby.

More hap­pened than is prob­a­bly realised. It was in fact a year of get­ting things done and sig­nif­i­cant changes were made, most of which, de­spite be­ing long over­due, will have a pos­i­tive if not nec­es­sar­ily im­me­di­ate im­pact.

One of those ma­jor changes ac­tu­ally took place in late 2016 when Dr Farah Palmer was ap­pointed to the board of the New Zealand Rugby Union.

Last year, with­out ques­tion, had been tu­mul­tuous and at times quite wor­ry­ingly il­lu­mi­nat­ing as to the true state of lin­ger­ing misog­y­nis­tic at­ti­tudes and cul­tures.

The ar­rival of Dr Palmer to the pre­vi­ously all-male board was at least a start in ad­dress­ing some the chronic lack of di­ver­sity in ad­min­is­tra­tive and ex­ec­u­tive po­si­tions across the game.

One ap­point­ment is hardly rea­son for cel­e­bra­tion or cause for op­ti­mism but what also hap­pened this year is that the pro­vin­cial unions agreed to change the con­sti­tu­tion of the NZR.

Now this could eas­ily be dis­missed as far too dry, dull and bor­ing to care about, but it was quite a big deal. The sum­mary here is that it be­came eas­ier for boards to ap­point greater num­bers of in­de­pen­dent can­di­dates and, in time, it will see more fe­male and non-white faces around the de­ci­sion-mak­ing ta­ble.

Rugby in New Zealand should, in time, be some­thing other than male, pale and stale at the ex­ec­u­tive level, and with a more ex­pan­sive range of life ex­pe­ri­ence in the mix, good­ness knows, the game may be in­fil­trated with good, cre­ative ideas that lead to player and spec­ta­tor growth.

Also in the sig­nif­i­cant change cat­e­gory, ob­vi­ously, was the de­ci­sion to cut Su­per Rugby from 18 teams to 15 next year. We could be smug and say that from day one, ear­lier, we were clear that ex­pan­sion was go­ing to end in tears.

It was a bad, bad idea bring­ing in three new teams into such a bloated for­mat and with a for­mat that was com­plex and not par­tic­u­larly fair ei­ther.

We didn’t like be­ing right but we were and the game in this part of the world suf­fered as a re­sult. Crowds are down ev­ery­where. TV au­di­ences have dropped, spon­sors are sud­denly harder to come by and the num­ber of play­ers who have headed off­shore from both Aus­tralia and South Africa in the last two years is wor­ry­ingly high.

It was scream­ing out for change as the sit­u­a­tion was un­ten­able: Su­per Rugby was go­ing to be bro­ken for­ever if San­zaar sat on its hands, and yet, we all thought was go­ing to do ex­actly that... sit on its hands.

It is not renowned as be­ing a dy­namic or re­spon­sive or­gan­i­sa­tion and agree­ing to change would be an ad­mis­sion that it had been wrong to ex­pand just two years pre­vi­ously.

We thought they would dig in, be ul­tra stub­born and refuse to lose face. But in fair­ness, they made a good de­ci­sion and while the ex­e­cu­tion of it – the shenani­gans in Aus­tralia – was painful to watch, they fi­nally got there in the end and Su­per Rugby might be a lot more in­ter­est­ing next year.

Cer­tainly it will have more cred­i­bil­ity and in­tegrity with the draw be­ing a lit­tle eas­ier to un­der­stand.

The other big change will take time to kick on but will even­tu­ally have a ma­jor im­pact. World Rugby has fi­nally agreed to chal­lenge the cur­rent el­i­gi­bil­ity laws and ex­tend the res­i­dency pe­riod from three years to five.

Again, we have banged on about this for an age – ar­gu­ing that the cred­i­bil­ity and in­tegrity of the in­ter­na­tional game have been com­pro­mised by the cur­rent law that means play­ers can qual­ify for a na­tion in which they were not born if they live there for three con­sec­u­tive years.

Too many play­ers have washed up in test jer­seys they never cov­eted or dreamt about wear­ing. What’s par­tic­u­larly bad is the in­creas­ing trend towards so­called project play­ers who are signed in col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween clubs and na­tional unions with a de­vel­op­ment plan on how they will break into the test team once their three year res­i­dency has been served.

It’s ut­ter non­sense and fi­nally enough peo­ple have realised and voted to ex­tend the res­i­dency pe­riod to five years from 2020. It will take a while for this change to re­ally bite, but it will and it should do plenty to change the balance of world rugby and make a test jersey a more prized pos­ses­sion than they cur­rently are at times.

Those three changes alone made 2017 a year of ma­jor change, but it was also a year in which tra­di­tion and old school val­ues came to the fore.

The Lions com­pleted a tour of New Zealand that was never dull and as best they could, they tried to make it a tour where they had a few nights out and did some­thing other than end­lessly train and play.

What they did was re­mind every­one – and their fans helped with this – that rugby is more than a sport. It is a means to bring peo­ple to­gether, to en­joy a shared pas­sion and ul­ti­mately be­come friends.

And an even more pow­er­ful re­minder of this came at Mur­ray­field when for­mer Scot­tish lock Dod­die Weir car­ried the match ball on to the field, flanked by his three sons.

Dod­die has been di­ag­nosed with mo­tor neu­rone dis­ease but in the way that only he can, he is re­fus­ing to be beaten by it or feel sorry for him­self and is rais­ing money to help all those who suf­fer from it.

It was an emo­tional mo­ment to see him make it out to the mid­dle of a ground he once ruled as a world class player not so long ago.

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