Rugby Union: Wind of change sweeps land of long white cloud: The status of New Zealand's traditional winter pastime is being challenged by the 13-a-side code. Steve Bale reports

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The Independent Online
MAYBE it was the Lions who did it, maybe there were other things involved. But, compared with 18 short months ago, the brash confidence of New Zealand rugby union suggests a sea-change in the status of the game in the country of its greatest strength.

This has its physical manifestation in the new, progressive All Black squad who are with us for their 13-match tour of England and Scotland with a postscript in Wales. It begins today against London at Twickenham and will end against the Barbarians at Cardiff Arms Park on 4 December.

But the change is more subtle than the simple sending of 30 talented young men half-way round the world. New Zealand rugby union is having to face up to the challenge of rugby league and thinks it is facing it down. The Lions, by generating big crowds and enormous public interest during May, June and July, played a significant part in this.

It had been very different 12 months earlier when the England B team were in New Zealand. Wandering about the country then, you had the feeling that rugby, though still more important than it could ever be here, was somehow no longer that important.

All the way from Whangerei to Invercargill rugby chiefs were perturbed at this relative decline, at the blanket television coverage of rugby league, at rugby's declining attendances. Walk round any New Zealand city and you would not find the youngsters wearing the colours of the All Blacks. They preferred to try Manly-Warringah, Canberra or the Brisbane Broncos for size.

Sartorially, nothing much has changed, a phenomenon ascribed by Neil Gray, the All Blacks manager and a New Zealand Rugby Football Union councillor, to the yearning of youth to be seen as anti-Establishment. Eighteen months ago one dared to wonder how long this comment by the New Zealand selector Peter Thorburn - 'rugby is part of the social fabric in this country' - would continue to ring true.

But if there were doubts then, they appear to have been triumphantly dispelled now. When rugby league's Winfield Cup grand final in Sydney was broadcast across the Tasman on TV2 most viewers who had been watching rugby union's National Championship final stayed with TV1 for the New Zealand tennis team's Davis Cup tie against Austria.

The real test, though, will not come until 1995 when the Auckland Warriors - coached by John Monie, formerly of Wigan - are launched into the Sydney competition. It will be as much a crisis for the 13-a-side code as for its 15-a-side begetter, since New Zealand rugby league is in effect throwing all its eggs into this one basket.

Plans for a superdome-type facility have foundered, leaving the Warriors to play in Auckland's southern suburbs at the soulless Mount Smart Stadium where North Harbour played the Lions in May. Neither is league helped by the poor standard of its domestic game, but it does have a vast appeal to the people of Pacific island stock who form a significant percentage of the population of the northern part of the North Island.

Whatever the Warriors' incommodious surroundings (and even rugby league people expect crowds to settle down at little more than 15,000), the attention the fledgling Auckland franchise will enjoy will be as exaggerated as anything they can manage in Australia and the potential to cream off leading players, as well perhaps as spectators, is too obvious for rugby union's comfort. Which is why the last thing the union authorities can afford is to sound complacent. 'We are more than holding our own with rugby league,' is as far as Eddie Tonks, chairman of both the NZRFU and the International Rugby Board, cares to go. 'It's not going to go away but I don't believe it's now anywhere near the threat it was a couple of years ago.'

This is not quite how Laurie Mains, the New Zealand coach, sees it. 'Rugby league is increasing in popularity in New Zealand, largely through the promotion of the Winfield Cup. Certainly rugby league appeals to the vast numbers of island population we have in the northern centres.'

On the other hand the All Blacks media man Ric Salizzo, a former TV journalist, reckons that league's relentless exposure on New Zealand television has begun doing more harm than good. And anyway Mains knows full well where most New Zealanders' loyalties lie: 'You only need to go round the grounds for provincial rugby or even club rugby to realise the grass-roots in New Zealand are still very firmly rugby union people.'

So much so that Neil Gray can afford to be faintly patronising about the other code. 'They say their numbers are growing but so are ours and in any case a vastly greater number of people play and are involved in rugby than in league in New Zealand,' he said.

'It's not them and us. There's room for both of us and, although they are a competitor for the leisure dollar, we don't see them as the opposition. As New Zealanders we watch with interest and pride when the national rugby league team plays its matches.' Still, Gray drily notes that if the All Blacks had, like the Kiwis in their first Test against Great Britain, lost 17-0 'we would have been slaughtered'.

The leisure dollar . . . this is a concept that not long ago would have been meaningless to New Zealanders. Patronising as it may seem to say so, at one time rugby was almost literally the only thing to do there, especially in the country districts. There was only one television channel, the shops shut on Saturdays, no other winter sport was of any consequence.

This has changed, for ever. Attitudes began to be affected by the divisive 1981 South African tour of New Zealand. Latterly New Zealand has suffered a recession worse even than Britain's, so it was scarcely surprising that New Zealanders would be reluctant to fork out to attend in person when they could see most of the big matches on the box.

With the Lions, whose provincial matches were nabbed by New Zealand's satellite channel but shown in highlight form by TV1, came an upsurge in interest which netted the NZRFU millions of (leisure) dollars as well as the attention of millions.

As the New Zealand economy comes out of recession, so New Zealand rugby union reaches out for a new boom. We will see as much on the tour that kicks off at Twickenham today and by the time of the 1995 World Cup we may well be saying the All Blacks have seldom had it so good.