Rugby's Black outlook

New Zealand rugby is in turmoil. Whether it is Dan Carter leaving for Europe, or the empty seats at last weekend's match, the sport's most passionate followers have fallen out of love with the game. Chris Hewett reports from Auckland
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The Independent Online

No one knows for sure whether it will be this week or next but, some day soon, Daniel Carter will make his choice. Two French clubs, widely assumed to be Toulon and Biarritz, are offering the world's best outside-half such unheard-of amounts of money – upwards of £500,000 plus an array of attractive add-ons for a maximum of six months' work – that Watford-based Saracens have been priced out of the market, despite the riches that cascade down from the multimillionaires in their boardroom. And when Carter heads north from his home in the south island of New Zealand, the row will start all over again.

Arguments are two a penny these days as the All Black nation curdles in its own misery. Half the population appear to despise the Test coach, Graham Henry, and those New Zealand Rugby Football Union grandees who reappointed him after last year's pratfall at the World Cup, while the other half despise those doing the despising and accuse them of naked treachery. There are ructions over competitive structures, regular bouts of administrative arm-wrestling over preparations for the global gathering here in 2011 and crises of confidence over dwindling gates and diminishing television audiences.

But Carter is the big issue, the one that best captures the mood of the moment and sets the tone of the conversation New Zealand rugby feels driven to have with itself. It was always likely to be this way once he signalled his intention to play off-shore, thereby testing one of his country's most sacred tenets: namely, that if a player exercised his right to go, the All Black selectors would automatically exercise their right to forget his very existence. Indeed, it was inevitable that in a rugby community suddenly so unsure of itself, after endless decades of swank and swagger, the single most celebrated sportsman in the land would become the focal point for the insecurities afflicting the national game – that he should draw them to himself as a magnet attracts iron filings.

Carter has blown a filthy great hole in the All Black fastness. By allowing the 26-year-old stand-off to stay on contract and remain a Test candidate despite his planned absence from next year's Super 14 provincial tournament – no one seriously believes he will not walk straight back into the New Zealand side when the 2009 international business commences next June – the union has finally accepted that northern money calls the tune in modern-day rugby. In attempting to be imaginative and proactive, to move with the times in protecting their most valuable asset, those who run the game here have left themselves open to accusations of weakness and hypocrisy.

Every employment lawyer from Whangarei to Invercargill is alert to the Carter affair, secure in the expectation that other celebrated All Blacks of the day will demand a piece of the same action. Already, Richie McCaw, the captain, has had a sabbatical clause built into his new three-year deal and will activate it when he feels the time is right. What happens when Joe Rokocoko or Mils Muliaina stroll along to the NZRFU offices on the Wellington waterfront and request the same privileges? A significant proportion of the rugby public believes that by agreeing to Carter's terms, the union has wedged itself between a rock and a hard place. It either kowtows to every Test player who fancies making a fast buck in the Premiership or Le Championnat, or it finds itself in court.

As if the NZRFU did not have enough strife on its hands, there are signs that the All Blacks have lost some of their lustre – that the public are falling out of love with the best New Zealand has to offer. When Ireland played in Wellington on Saturday night, there were empty seats by the thousand. Admittedly, it was raining, and when it rains in Wellington, the locals count their animals in two by two. But as the national side had not played a single match in the 250-odd days since the traumatic defeat by France in the World Cup quarter-final, the failure to sell out a 34,000-capacity venue in one of the great rugby towns on the planet – the stamping ground of Cliff Porter and Mark Nicholls, of Ken Gray and Murray Mexted, occasionally of Christian Cullen and some bloke called Lomu – was a thoroughly depressing development.

Some of the tarnishing has to do with the All Black diaspora, and some of it reflects a wider frustration at the union's decision to stick with Henry, rather than turn to the most successful coach in the land, Robbie Deans of the Crusaders. (Deans promptly pushed off to Australia, where he is now coaching the Wallabies – another blow to the country's solar plexus). But the malaise runs still deeper. It is, in large part, a consequence of New Zealand's inability to compete economically with the two financial superpowers of the world game, England and France. When money starts talking, the Kiwis have no choice but to shut up and listen. This place may produce more 24-carat union talent than any rival nation but, for the first time in the sport's history, there are more important things in rugby life than having the best players.

To make matters worse, hard cash is only part of the package offered by the English and the French. They have the best competitions, too. Not just the Heineken Cup, rugby's wildly successful version of football's Champions League, but also the two major domestic tournaments. These are attracting ever greater crowds, to the extent that Stade Français have repeatedly proved themselves capable of drawing 80,000 Parisians to a bog-standard fixture. When, a week ago last Saturday, almost 82,000 supporters watched Wasps beat Leicester in the Premiership final at Twickenham, the occasion was marked by the sound of jawbones shattering on the pavements of Auckland and Christchurch.

Perhaps the most brutal description of the issues facing rugby here was made by Justin Marshall, a celebrated All Black scrum-half who partnered Carter during New Zealand's whitewash of the British and Irish Lions in 2005 and now plays his rugby at the Swansea-based Ospreys, the richest of the four Welsh regional teams. Just before the Heineken Cup quarter-finals in April, he described the Heineken as "far superior" to Super 14, its southern hemisphere equivalent. "It is much tougher and offers up the variety that is terribly missing in Super 14," he said. "If you play 10 years of that, as I did, it gets tedious. That was what pushed me away – I just got stale."

Marshall did not insult the intelligence of his audience by seeking to deny that his pay packet was equally alluring, if not more so, but his words struck a chord. "It is a serious problem for the southern hemisphere teams, and it extends into the Tri-Nations [the annual international series in which New Zealand, Australia and South Africa play each other – not once or twice, but three times]. The same players from Super 14 pull on different-coloured jerseys and do it all over again. This is why viewing figures and attendances are dropping – it's basically New Zealand, Australia and South Africa playing each other for six months of the year and, after a bucketload of that, people are turning off their televisions."

Steve Tew, the chief executive of the embattled NZRFU, used less graphic language in assessing the situation yesterday, but he made no attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of his audience. "The business models in England and France are making life pretty difficult for us," he admitted yesterday. "A place this size will always struggle to match their figures and, as the current climate in this country is tough for anyone trying to sell anything, we're going through a particularly testing time. It's also true to say that in the aftermath of the World Cup, which was such a bitter disappointment for us, we now face the challenge of winning back the hearts and minds of the supporters. You don't have to be in New Zealand too long to realise that feelings towards rugby have taken a bit of a knock."

If rugby finds itself in turn-off territory in New Zealand, of all places in Christendom, the entire sport has a problem. Union could easily become ghettoised, like rugby league, with pockets of high interest here and there and widespread indifference everywhere else. None of the top four nations in the current world rankings is having it easy: racial politics still casts its shadow over selection in South Africa; the best Argentinian players continue to fight for the right to earn against a governing body that shows no sign of updating its Jurassic values; the Australians do not have a domestic structure worthy of the name and remain wholly dependent on Rupert Murdoch's money and the continuation of Super 14 rugby, with all its flaws; and New Zealand is in the throes of depression.

Heaven knows, the English do not have everything right. But in pure rugby terms, the red rose is enjoying a vastly better time of it than the silver fern. Why? It's the economy, stupid. And as Eric Morecambe used to say, there's no answer to that.