Friday night at Westpac Stadium represented the latest in a long list of ghastly performances by the Wellington Lions in the ITM Cup and was probably the nadir for the Wellington Rugby Football Union.
So what has actually gone wrong with Wellington Rugby?
Anyone that’s familiar with the local scene will know that the standard of Club Rugby is very strong, in particular where the Jubilee Cup is accepted as one of the strongest club competitions in New Zealand. Add the fact that there are a number of local First XV’s that reside at the elite level and provide a steady stream of talent to New Zealand’s age group teams. All this means that the Lions should have delivered a number of championships to its hardy fans but alas it’s been 14 years since the last one in 2000 (and 14 years before that) !
Like most sporting organisations that consistently don’t achieve to the level they should, the answer to the problem is varied but not difficult to arrive at – it’s the Back Office.
The complex inter-twining of the Hurricanes and Lions franchises including the WRFU having a 50% share in the Hurricanes has meant that provincial rugby has largely taken a back seat in terms of preparation and planning. This is exemplified by the appointment of Coach Chris Boyd who has been required to be Lions Coach while at the same time operating as New Zealand Under 20’s Coach (one of New Zealand Rugby’s marquee roles) and Hurricanes Coach (responsible for quickly plugging a number of significant gaps that have appeared since the end of the Super Rugby season). It is clearly apparent which job has suffered most.
Boyd has had to deal with the enormous pressure of taking the New Zealand U20 team as New Zealand hosted the tournament for the first time in June. New Zealand Rugby talent is spread far and wide and this job is a tricky, time consuming and complex one ensuring none from the vast talent pool slips through the gap.
While all that was going on, Boyd was also appointed Coach of the Hurricanes on a 2 year deal and immediately had to set to work recruiting Maa Nonu as well as chasing a number of players to fill gaps following the departure of Mark Hammett. As we understand it this is still continuing while the Lions flounder on the road to relegation to the Championship in the ITM Cup.
Boyd is highly rated, experienced and quite frankly a lovely bloke but for the Board to ask him to do 3 jobs at the same time was clearly insanity – someone should be accountable but who are they, we tried Google but couldn’t see any names?
Add to that there have been some mysterious recruitment decisions where aging veteran Riki Flutey was preferred at first five to regular #10 and usual starter Lima Sopoaga – not surprisingly for a small pay rise (that the Wellington Union were apparently unwilling to pay) Sopoaga packed his bags for the glamour of Invercargill and the Southland Stags while Flutey suffered a season-ending injury. All that was needed was a perfect storm of other injuries on top of this (noting all teams get them) and the Lions are now in a huge hole.
The final nail in the coffin is the Boards decision to continually host games at Westpac Stadium. Yes we know sponsors, TV and corporate boxes are all a necessity for today’s modern game but we at Sportsfreak can’t see why the WRFU shouldn’t take games to a number of boutique grounds that exist in the area where all of the above could still be looked after. Last years All Blacks game at the Hutt Rec plus the excellent Porirua Stadium or even the tradition of the Petone Rec could be used to provide a colosseum-like atmosphere that could give the Lions a real local advantage over other sides. The cavernous enclave that is Westpac Stadium with 3000 odd people in it simply doesn’t cut it as a venue at this level anymore and is neutral at best – an embarrassing White Elephant at worst.
Of course the diehard fans among us will keep turning up if only to say ‘we were there when we were crap’ when the next title finally arrives.
In the meantime sit back and enjoy this – it might be a while.