Marlborough chairman Peter Heagney has launched a scathing attack on the “spineless” New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU), casting serious doubt over the future of the Tasman union.
Both Tasman and Northland were threatened with relegation from the Air NZ Cup but were granted a stay of execution last Friday by the NZRU for the next two years.
However, both now have to prove their financial viability while the Marlborough and Nelson Bays sub-unions must mend a fraught relationship if Tasman are to continue.
Marlborough’s clubs have made it clear they want Tasman dissolved so Heagney was stunned at the NZRU not taking the chance to reduce the size of the competition.
“I think the NZRU are gun-shy, they seem to be making spineless decisions,” Heagney said.
“They don’t want to make a hard and fast decision over issues that are important in my opinion to keep rugby moving forward.
“It’s pretty obvious that there’s a lot of unions in New Zealand that are near enough to bankrupt.”
Heagney believed the Air NZ Cup should be reduced from 14 to nine teams, which would more accurately reflect New Zealand’s population and resources.
“Most unions in New Zealand are under financial pressure. So what does that tell you? It’s not affordable, it’s not attractive,” he said.
Heagney had always believed the Tasman merger was doomed from its conception in 2006 because of the absence of a sustainable financial model.
His eight member clubs had become more disheartened as debt grew and in July seven of them called on Marlborough to return to the second-tier Heartland Championship.
Heagney revealed the NZRU had at that stage “informally” asked Marlborough to start preparing for life in the Heartland Championship from 2009.
He found it “quite bizarre” that Marlborough had no involvement in the Tasman submission for survival in Wellington last week and he still had not seen the NZRU conditions.
His sub-union board would discuss those conditions tomorrow before passing that information on to clubs.
“They (the clubs) may have had a change of heart since July, but I most probably doubt whether they would have,” Heagney said.
He believed dissatisfaction had probably grown because the $340,000 NZRU financial bailout of Tasman last month would become a loan if the union continued.
That was after Tasman chairman Max Spence had assured Marlborough there would be no further financial strain following the $3.5 million sale of Blenheim’s Lansdowne Park to Marlborough District Council to clear debt.
Adding to Marlborough’s angst is the perception that Nelson Bays benefit more heavily from the Tasman union and their team being based in Nelson.
Peter Barr could not comment on historical differences between the sub-unions as he began as Tasman’s chief executive in March.
“Marlborough feel as though they haven’t had enough players representing the Makos or the Tasman B team,” he told NZPA.
“At the end of the day, players are selected on merit, not on geographical location.
“I’m confident that the best players in the province are playing in those two teams.”
Barr hoped the Marlborough clubs would consider the pathway to professional rugby Tasman provided when they weighed up whether to continue supporting the merger.
“If we could put the animosity aside and think what’s best for the young talent coming through, then it’s about the rugby players, it’s not about the administrators,” he said.
“There are always things you can do better. I’m sure the Marlborough sub-union, like Nelson Bays, will say that they could have done things better as well.
“Then I think we can resolve our issues.
He said support for Tasman remained strong in Nelson while sponsors had contacted him to express their delight since the NZRU decision and Tasman’s gallant but failed Ranfurly Shield challenge against Wellington.
Breaking further into a tight sponsorship market would be crucial to become financially sustainable.
With Lansdowne Park no longer providing crippling interest bills and with plans for player salaries to be tightened from $1.2 million to below six figures, Barr was confident of improvement.
The Nelson Bays clubs were to meet on Monday night and the Tasman board Tuesday night.