HOW THE MIGHTY HAVE FALLEN

Auck­land’s nadir has ar­rived. Rel­e­gated or not, the team and ad­min­is­tra­tion must pull them­selves up by the boot­laces, writes Liam Napier

Weekend Herald - - RUGBY - Auck­land v Can­ter­bury match re­port /

Hit­ting rock bot­tom usu­ally forces ma­jor change. There are no ex­cuses left; no room to dodge re­al­ity.

This is where the most vis­i­ble arm of Auck­land rugby now sits, re­gard­less of whether they are rel­e­gated from the Mitre 10 Cup Premier­ship this week­end, which looks all the more likely af­ter last night’s loss to Can­ter­bury.

The ig­nominy of rel­e­ga­tion may not be what it used to be but, if it comes to pass, se­verely dented pride, and fur­ther ero­sion of sta­tus, still im­me­di­ately fol­lows.

Whether they drop a di­vi­sion or not, Auck­land’s grad­ual de­te­ri­o­ra­tion can no longer be ig­nored, or ac­cepted. It’s a plight that pleases some but also hurts many, not least those who con­trib­uted greatly to the union’s hal­cyon days.

Auck­land cap­tured 15 cham­pi­onships from 1976- 2005. The team of 1985- 1993 made 61 de­fences of the cov­eted Ran­furly Shield. That record still stands. Only now, it is a sym­bol of just how far the once revered have fallen.

“The whole coun­try was in awe of Auck­land,” said All Blacks great Bryan Wil­liams, a for­mer Auck­land player, coach and board mem­ber. “That’s def­i­nitely changed, hasn’t it?”

Wil­liams laments, among other things, the sim­ple er­ror rate of this year’s team. He re­calls his Auck­land side go­ing suc­ces­sive train­ings with­out one mis­take — and when Joe Stan­ley fi­nally did drop the ball, gasps emerged. No pats on the back. Stan­ley swiftly apol­o­gised.

Stan­dards and ac­count­abil­ity set by to­day’s team do not war­rant com­par­i­son. “It’s hugely dis­ap­point­ing to see the con­tin­ued lack of per­for­mance,” Wil­liams said.

Com­par­ing eras is not en­tirely fair. All Blacks rarely turn out for the prov­inces these days, with Su­per Rugby re­duc­ing it to a third- tier de­vel­op­ment com­pe­ti­tion. Yet Auck­land boasts a squad that has, once again, grossly un­der­per­formed.

New Zealand’s largest and most eth­ni­cally di­verse city is a com­plex beast with many heads. But three ar­eas need dras­tic im­prove­ment be­fore this union will rise again. They in­clude: tal­ent path­ways, cal­i­bre of coaches, and a dys­func­tional re­la­tion­ship with the Blues.

ini­tial years of pro­fes­sion­al­ism, Auck­land and the Blues were vir­tu­ally one dom­i­nant en­tity. Wellington were also the Hur­ri­canes; Can­ter­bury the Cru­saders.

The ad­vent of pri­vate own­er­ship changed that dy­namic, and in the case of Auck­land, clearly for the worse. Dur­ing those early years, North Har­bour, in par­tic­u­lar, were largely frozen out of the Blues. It re­mains a sore point to­day, and forms part of the rea­son a ma­jor di­vide de­vel­oped be­tween Auck­land rugby and the Blues.

The other was a per­son­al­ity clash be­tween for­mer long- serv­ing Blues and Auck­land chief ex­ec­u­tive Andy Dal­ton and Blues pri­vate owner Mur­ray Bolton. This feud pro­gressed to the point where Auck­land is largely not wel­come to use the Blues’ base at Alexan­dra Park.

Yes, two rugby or­gan­i­sa­tions in the same city ap­par­ently can’t co­ex­ist at the same fa­cil­ity. Auck­land is on the hunt for their own train­ing base af­ter the coun­cil ef­fec­tively kicked them out of Nixon Park.

Other Blues board mem­bers are known to have long- held grudges with Auck­land rugby, too.

“I’m re­ally con­cerned for one about the dis­con­nect be­tween the Blues and the prov­inces,” Wil­liams said. “It’s a fun­da­men­tal flaw. Un­less they fix that, we’re go­ing to con­tinue to beat our head against a brick wall.

“I would have thought the Blues would wel­come their unions to use their fa­cil­i­ties but ap­par­ently they don’t. It re­ally shouldn’t hap­pen. It’s like coali­tion gov­ern­ment — sort it out and get on with it.”

Wil­liams’ frus­tra­tions are also shared by Wayne Pi­vac, who coached Auck­land to the 2002 and 2003 pro­vin­cial ti­tles and this year guided the Llanelli- based Scar­lets to the Pro 12 cham­pi­onship.

“I don’t think there is that align­ment any more. Some peo­ple within the Blues fran­chise are very happy about that,” Pi­vac said. “Auck­land is a big union with a mag­nif­i­cent his­tory be­hind it. With the catch­ment area and tal­ent avail­able, you ex­pect much bet­ter.”

Auck­land chief ex­ec­u­tive Jar­rod Bear has been in the role 12 months. In that time, he be­lieves ties with the Blues have im­proved to the point where he talks reg­u­larly with coun­ter­part Michael Red­man.

“I’m al­ways open to how we can im­prove that re­la­tion­ship and foster greater suc­cess,” Bear said.

the next con­cern. From Sir Fred Allen to John Hart, Mau­rice Trapp and Wil­liams who to­gether com­piled a scarcely be­liev­able 94 per cent win­ning record, and Sir Gra­ham Henry, Auck­land have har­nessed bril­liant rugby minds.

Henry was briefly in­volved this year in the week lead­ing up to Auck­land’s 38- 19 vic­tory over Bay of Plenty — a rare bright spot in an oth­er­wise for­get­table cam­paign.

Ap­point­ing Nick White un­der the con­ti­nu­ity the­ory is thought to have in­volved a flawed process that was not thor­ough enough. Be­fore last night’s fi­nal round robin match, White had eight wins from 19 games in two sea­sons.

Pi­vac praised White’s work un­der him at North­land and Auck­land but it is clear the for­mer Blues prop was not ready for the jump from as­sis­tant to head coach. Auck­land’s man­age­ment team this year also fea­tured t wo scrum coaches.

These fail­ings ul­ti­mately rest with Auck­land rugby’s hi­er­ar­chy. Ad­ver­tis­ing White’s role well be­fore the end of this sea­son was an em­bar­rass­ing look for all in­volved.

When any coach­ing group can’t chal­lenge the play­ers, it cre­ates a vi­cious cy­cle. Play­ers, many of whom come from high per­for­mance sys­tems where every­thing is done for them into a semi- pro­fes­sional en­vi­ron­ment, be­come un­mo­ti­vated. As we’ve seen this year, it all then falls apart.

Wil­liams be­lieves ex­pe­ri­enced club coaches who un­der­stand the re­gion must be groomed and em­braced.

“The man­age­ment needs to be looked at, too, with the de­ci­sions that have been made and ap­point­ment of var­i­ous peo­ple. If you go back and look at some of the hor­ren­dous ap­point­ments his­tor­i­cally at the Blues as well, you can trace the be­gin­ning of the demise.

“It comes back to build­ing the right sort of cul­ture. The play­ers have got to want to rep­re­sent Auck­land and know what that means. It’s a mag­nif­i­cent city, Auck­land. It’s got huge nat­u­ral beauty and at­trac­tions but you get the sense the play­ers don’t un­der­stand what they’re rep­re­sent­ing.

“I know when old timers like me talk about these things, the mod­ern- day player will say that they do un­der­stand who they rep­re­sent, but this is the most suc­cess­ful union in the coun­try so show it con­sis­tently.” Ap­pli­ca­tions for White’s suc­ces­sor closed yes­ter­day, with more than 24 can­di­dates sig­nalling their in­ter­est af­ter an in­de­pen­dent global search. Bear sug­gested the next coach could come from out­side the re­gion. “Ul­ti­mately it would be nice for us to re­cruit from within our com­mu­nity but po­ten­tially we haven’t got the right de­vel­op­ment of coaches com­ing through,” Bear said. “They may or may not be ready.” Un­der­whelm­ing re­sults only make re­tain­ing tal­ent more dif­fi­cult. Auck­land, the only re­gion to send two teams, won the na­tional un­der- 19 tour­na­ment this year and had nine play­ers in the world cham­pion New Zealand un­der- 20s. Five from the un­der- 19s played for Auck­land in this year’s Mitre 10 Cup but how many more progress is un­cer­tain. Elec­tric fin­isher Bray­don En­nor, the lead­ing pro­vin­cial try- scorer this year, i s just one to al­ready slip through from the New Zealand un­der­20s, hav­ing come through St Kentigern Col­lege only to be snapped up by Can­ter­bury and the Cru­saders. En­nor i s a clas­sic case of Auck­land’s world­class first XV com­pe­ti­tion be­ing cherry- picked by ag­gres­sive tal­ent scouts but it also re­flects Can­ter­bury’s re­cent suc­cess of de­vel­op­ing and pro­mot­ing play­ers. Fac­tors such as Auck­land’s cost of liv­ing, com­bined with a blan­ket $ 1 mil­lion Mitre 10 Cup salary cap where salaries range from $ 21,000 to $ 55,000, also con­tribut­ing to re­ten­tion chal­lenges.

with one team, i s Auck­land will never pro­vide a home for all its tal­ent. But select­ing and grow­ing the right play­ers re­mains cru­cial.

“There are a lot of Auck­land­based play­ers play­ing across the Bridge and for other sides,” Pi­vac said. “A few years ago, those play­ers would want to pull on an Auck­land jersey. That’s some­thing that has to be ad­dressed. Ev­ery young guy com­ing through a first XV in Auck­land you would like to think would want to pull on a blue and white hooped jersey.”

Bear is aware this can’t con­tinue. With Ben Meyer mov­ing to head of high per­for­mance, changes are be­ing made to how age- grade teams — as far down as the un­der- 14s — are se­lected and ap­proach the game.

In­stead, for in­stance, of pick­ing two strong ball- car­ry­ing mid­field­ers, the mes­sage now is to seek a bal­anced pair­ing that also of­fers strong de­fen­sive and dis­tri­bu­tion skills. Strate­gies and tac­tics will be pro­vided to these teams so the ob­jec­tive is not sim­ply to roll op­po­si­tion by 60 points, but rather mould play­ers who will ex­cel in the pro­fes­sional arena.

“This sea­son has pro­vided the cat­a­lyst to look at our sys­tems; look at our­selves in terms of how we im­prove and set up for sus­tain­able suc­cess — not just a short term so­lu­tion,” said Bear.

“While we want to see in­stant suc­cess in 2018, and that will be our ob­jec­tive, it’s go­ing to take three to five years to see the fruition of what hap­pens within tal­ent iden­ti­fi­ca­tion through to the Mitre 10 Cup,” the chief ex­ec­u­tive added.

Auck­land’s nadir has ar­rived. It may be a dif­fer­ent era but this prov­ince must now learn to pick it­self up and do jus­tice to its proud his­tory.

Bryan Wil­liams Wayne Pi­vac ( pic­tured right)

Pic­tures / Photosport

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