I thought I had witnessed Otago’s darkest day in rugby. It was 1979 and Steve Marfell the strapping Marlbrough 2nd-five lined up a penalty that would have sunk Otago into the 2nd Division South with the likes of Buller and North Otago. He missed and over the years following Otago built up an enviable record under the likes of Laurie Mains, Gordon Hunter and latterly Tony Gilbert. But now Otago rugby stands on the edge of oblivion- at least in the short term. It is truly shocking for those of us who grew up in awe of the blue and gold.
The truth is that the professional era for rugby has never really been kind to Otago. In the years following 1996 there was a legacy of player strength that carried Otago to an NPC title a couple of years later, but it soon became clear that retaining players was going to be a struggle. As the performances of the team declined, so did the crowds, and no doubt the sponsorship revenue. Player payments went up and up, and the cost of retaining Carisbrook as a facility also grew. That much I can see, what on earth else was going on to see the debt rise so much I have no idea. This must have been some pretty shocking decisions taken in the last few years to see it get this bad.
The NZRU seem likely to ensure club and school rugby will continue, and that as Clare and David have pointed out, must be a priority.
As for the ITM Cup (NPC) team I think it is important that something is done to try to field a team this year. This might well be the opportunity to see the wider community come back in behind the team. With local commercial support as the base, maybe Otago people can be given the opportunity to help get the team on the field. The rest of the year then needs to be spent establishing a more sustainable base for the future.
But the real question that does have to be answered is the sustainability of professional rugby at the provincial level. Chris Laidlaw has made the case that we pretty much can not afford it, and there is evidence to back that up. Many provinces are really struggling, and as we can see in Otago’s case, it can have massive consequences. But what would a return to amateur rugby mean for provincial teams? The looming private ownership of Super 15 franchises will put more distance between local rugby and the professional game, and the chances of money earned professionally coming back to support the game will reduce.
The NZRU urgently need to re-look at the model for the game here to ensure that it survives and thrives at a local level. They tell us that is their goal- now is the time to take stock and make good on that commitment.