Rugby Union: Nation's soul held hostage by cameras: A surfeit of television coverage is proving too much of a good thing for rugby union in New Zealand. Steve Bale reports

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NEW ZEALAND has changed, and so has rugby union's place as the manifestation of Kiwi nationhood. It is still important and always will be, but not that important - and that is perturbing rugby chiefs all the way from Whangarei to Invercargill.

For the first time New Zealanders have come to realise, in the aftermath of last year's World Cup, that it is not their inalienable right to be the best at rugby. We should not kid ourselves: they are still very good, and have superb strength in depth. But they are not that good, not so good that the rest of the rugby world might as well forget it.

England B were unable to beat New Zealand C last Sunday but they went close and not many England sides have been able to say that. Ireland were within an ace of beating the full All Blacks in last month's first Test. They came through, as New Zealand sides tend to, but the very idea of such close-run things would once have been unthinkable.

Not least, there has been a transformation in New Zealand society itself. Not many years ago rugby was almost literally the only thing to do here, especially in the country districts. There was only one television channel, the shops shut on Saturdays, no other winter sport was of any consequence. What money you had you would probably spend to go to the rugby.

This has changed, probably for ever. Attitudes began to be affected by the divisive 1981 South African tour here. Latterly New Zealand has been suffering a recession worse even than Britain's and New Zealanders are reluctant to fork out to attend in person when they know they can see most big matches on the box. There were no more than 5,000 at Hamilton's 36,000-capacity ground for the England game. If it had not been broadcast live, the Waikato Rugby Union reckons there might have been 13,000.

Even huge provincial encounters such as Auckland against Wellington struggle to draw much more than 5,000 people, though that is a mass audience compared with some games. King Country, the union of the fabled Colin Meads, are newcomers in the First Division of the national championship and you might imagine enthusiasm was high but they had 250 for one of their matches.

The largest crowd for any match this season was 26,000 in Dunedin for New Zealand v Ireland - and it needed a price reduction to get that. The last time the All Blacks played in Dublin, Lansdowne Road was full with more than 50,000.

Television is a hot subject here, not simply because of the surfeit of coverage - live, delayed, extended highlights and highlights almost daily - which is giving New Zealanders far too much of a good thing and sending gates plummeting. Now the satellite channel Sky has secured the rights to cover the All Blacks in South Africa.

The storm this has raised has shown that people do still care. Sky, which has a different ownership from its UK equivalent, transmits only in New Zealand's centres of population, meaning that unless a deal is struck with one of the terrestrial networks, many New Zealanders will have to huddle round their radios. The beautiful irony is that TV One, which was also in the bidding, is a Sky shareholder.

Newspaper correspondence columns have been regaled by furious followers who believe the nation's soul has been sold. 'We are talking about the All Blacks, not just a rugby team but a hallowed institution,' spluttered one letter in the New Zealand Herald. It went on: 'Rugby league bosses must have a smile from ear to ear now that rugby's showcase has been consigned to the viewing wilderness.'

The letter's greatest pertinence was its reference to rugby league. New Zealanders receive blanket television coverage of the Winfield Cup - the New South Wales Rugby League premiership - and so much of what is happening in rugby union in the southern hemisphere is driven by a panicked reaction to league.

What really exercises the rugby union hierarchy is the launch in 1995 of an Auckland franchise into the Sydney competition. The attention this will enjoy will be as exaggerated as anything they can manage in Australia and the potential to cream off leading players as well as spectators is too obvious for rugby union's comfort.

'Rugby is part of the social fabric in this country,' Peter Thorburn, the coach of the New Zealand team who are facing England, says of the union code; and, as marketing phenomena can be temporary, the perceived rugby league menace may turn out to be a mirage. But if you walk round any New Zealand city, the youngsters are not wearing the colours of the All Blacks. They prefer to try Manly-Warringah, Canberra or the Brisbane Broncos for size.