Canterbury remain untouchable
George Whitelock (Getty Images)
Wellington - Canterbury have rubber-stamped their domestic dominance over the last decade by storming to a sixth successive New Zealand provincial title with a 29-13 victory against Wellington on Saturday.
It was heartbreak for the home side, who had not won the title for 13 years and have now lost seven finals since last tasting victory in a competition that struggles to maintain its popularity in the shadow of Super Rugby and test matches.
The revered semi-professional competition is, however, considered an essential part of the player production line that provides the bedrock of a rugby structure from which springs the most successful team in the international game, the All Blacks.
"This is creating professional rugby players," Hawke's Bay Rugby Union chief executive Mike Bishop told Reuters.
"Their ethic is professional, even if they're not paid as such. But if their work ethic is good enough, and they're good enough, they advance to the next level pretty easily.
"This is a very good proving ground."
Despite the consensus over the value of the competition, all is by no means rosy in the provincial rugby garden.
The final was played in front of just 15,070 spectators, highlighting a trend of waning interest in a traditionally rugby-mad country that has administrators concerned.
Provinces have also struggled financially since the arrival of professionalism, being forced to reconcile their ambitions against their budgets.
The issue came to a head in 2012 when the heavily indebted Otago Rugby Union came within hours of liquidation.
The New Zealand Rugby Union has also provided loans to Southland, Tasman and Waikato, while Northland, Bay of Plenty, Counties Manukau and Manawatu have all experienced financial pressure.
The Otago crisis prompted NZRU chief executive Steve Tew to send a stark warning to all 14 top-tier provinces that they must start living within their means.
A recent Deloitte 'State of The Unions' report suggested the warning may have been heeded, with costs cut by unions from NZ$85 million ($70.50 million) in 2007 to NZ$66 million last year.
The report also indicated, though, that revenues were falling and the long-term financial future remained shaky.
Total revenue exceeded NZ$84m in 2007 with match-related income around NZ$20 million. In 2012, total revenue from the teams was down to NZ$67m with match-related income below NZ$9m.
"They have taken note of the key messages they have been given about managing their costs... but any business that has declining revenues has to look at ways to bring that back," Deloitte's partner Grant Jarrold told Reuters.
"They have achieved higher revenues in the past and there is lot of competing opportunities for people to spend their discretionary income on, so unions do need to be innovative to bring that discretionary income back."
Jarrold's report also highlighted the reliance of provincial unions upon grants from the NZRU and community gaming trusts, with almost 70 percent of their revenue coming from such grants.
Those grants, however, are also slowly shrinking with gaming expenditure down three percent from NZ$854 million to $826.3 million to the year ending on June 30, 2013.
"Most of the gaming trusts money is applied to the grass roots level - club rugby, school rugby, amateur rep rugby," Jarrold added.
"If that declined, that would hit the base quite hard and if that happens and the clubs struggle to attract new members... then they won't be able to fund semi-professional rugby."
The current uncertainties are a far cry from the days when provincial rivalry helped establish rugby as the national sport and propelled the country onto the global stage.
"Most sports historians argue that the most significant thing involved in establishing rugby in New Zealand was the advent of inter-provincial games," Massey University sports historian Geoff Watson told Reuters.
"In many respects, provinces were very artificially drawn, but when you put a jersey to it people buy into it. They will go and they will pay their money to see it.
"Historically, the most meaningful expression of provincial identity in New Zealand was, and is, in sport."
The provincial competition in its modern incarnation began in 1976 with its present structure largely settled on after the last major overhaul in 2006.
One of the key issues it has faced since, though, has been the seemingly endless tinkering with the format, making it more difficult for the casual fan to follow.
With at least one game on television five days a week during the regular season, 'rugby fatigue' has also anecdotally been cited for the drop in spectator numbers.
More changes could soon be afoot when southern hemisphere rugby's governing body SANZAR renegotiates the Super Rugby television deals in 2015.
SANZAR boss Greg Peters believes expansion is on the cards with South Africa's 'non-negotiable' demand for a sixth franchise, which could see New Zealand get one too.
Both Taranaki and Hawke's Bay have indicated interest in a Super Rugby licence in the past and the former's chairman Lindsay Thomson has said the province are still keen.
"Whatever those changes are, Taranaki wants to be in the upper echelon of whatever those future competitions will be," he told Reuters.
"That means we have certain ambitions and if there is an expansion of Super 15 at any time then we want people to be aware of the fact we have expressed interest in a future team."
While Hawke's Bay would probably be in the running too, Bishop would be reluctant to jeopardise the links with the local community that have made them one of the most financially stable unions.
They have increased total revenue from NZ$2.2m in 2005 to more than NZ$5m in 2012 - 90 percent of that coming from the local community - and are the only union to have posted a surplus for the last 16 years.
On match days, they are averaging around 10 000 fans, about seven percent of the population of the province on the east coast of the North Island.
"People have a connection," Bishop said. "This has got 120 to 130 years of history around it.
"You have generations who have played in the black and white jersey, whereas Super Rugby has cobbled together (provincial)teams with long-standing rivalries.
"This is local. It's our team. That's the difference."