Rugby League: League breaks union's power

RUGBY LEAGUE in New Zealand is so accustomed to acting like the poor relation that it is still getting used to walking confidently like a grown-up member of the family, writes Dave Hadfield from Auckland.

In the last few years the perception of the game has changed radically in New Zealand, just as the All Blacks' aura of invincibility has dissipated.

Apart from the decline of the All Blacks and relative success of the Kiwis, the main reason for league's higher profile has been the screening on New Zealand television of Winfield Cup games from Australia three, and sometimes four times a week.

Audiences have been huge, far bigger than for domestic club rugby union, coverage of which is about to be scrapped because viewing figures are so disappointing.

Teenagers in New Zealand are more likely to wear a Manly or Eastern Suburbs shirt than the All Blacks uniform, which is touted so energetically to tourists.

Even the former All Blacks captain, Wayne Shelford, says his children are more interested in the 13-man code and regard the league players of Sydney as their heroes rather than the union men of New Zealand.

Among the older generation, brought up to regard league as a game beneath the dignity of red- blooded New Zealanders, opinions have changed.

Part of the interest in the Sydney competition springs from the number of New Zealanders playing in it. Of the Test team who beat Great Britain on Sunday, seven earn their living in Australia.

That situation is likely to change in the next three years as Auckland have been accepted for the Winfield Cup in 1995 and their entry could be brought forward if, as it is feared, one or more of the Sydney clubs bow to the financial troubles besetting them before then.

An Auckland franchise will be enthusiastically supported. It will also further shift the balance between the two codes in New Zealand.

If Auckland can retain a proportion of the players who now play in Australia and England, and attract some of those who would naturally gravitate to rugby union, they will be well on their way to producing a competitive side.

Auckland will become the focal point for the burgeoning interest in the game. Although league remains the sport of choice for Maoris, it is breaking out of that ghetto.

On the weekend of the recent Test against Papua New Guinea, there were more than 80 club sides playing in Auckland alone and there is more activity in schools than at any time since New Zealand first adopted the game in 1907.

However, the picture is not all rosy for league. It is still unevenly spread, with Auckland dominating national competitions and only Christchurch, and the traditional league hotbed of the west coast, playing to any standard in the South Island.

Even in Auckland gates for club matches are low and the administration of the game is listless. Spectators and administrators seem to be waiting for 1995 before they become galvanised.