10 Dec, 12:23
Ireland's John Lacey will referee his first ever RBS 6 Nations match in February, while Alain Rolland is also included in the Elite Panel in what is his last season.
Judging by the diminutive number of supporters on hand at Eden Park last Saturday for one of the NPC's bigger games you'd almost have to agree with the perennial knockers of Auckland rugby.
While the A-team's recent on-field antics have earned Auckland rugby renewed plaudits from all quarters, and it now seems that there are significant gains being made off the field by the administrative hub, the union is continually let down by its apathetic supporters'. Watching just over 20,000 people half fill Auckland's home of rugby for the Battle of the Bridge' (at the user-friendly time of 5.35pm) must have been a great disappointment for the team at Auckland rugby who did such a good job in promoting the event. First they invited over 200 people (including many former Auckland and North Harbour greats) along to the Hall of Legends at Eden Park for the Battle of the Bridge' breakfast on the Wednesday before the match. Early-risers indulged in a sumptuous buffet breakfast and enjoyed a trip down the Auckland/North Harbour memory lane as highlights of the first clash between the two unions from 1986 were played on the big screen.
On a sidenote it is worth reminding readers that when Auckland and North Harbour met in that first bridge battle there were 35,000 people on hand at Eden Park to watch a match between first and second division sides that was played on a Wednesday afternoon! Next we saw rival captains Mark Robinson and Xavier Rush climbing the Auckland Harbour bridge together and having their pictures taken with the new Brian Purdy memorial trophy, albeit in its primitive stages of construction. Television cameras were on hand for both of these events and there was plenty of radio and print coverage in the lead up to the cross-city fixture, but still Aucklanders could not be inspired to turn out en mass. The acquisition of a piece of the Auckland Harbour Bridge for the Purdy memorial by union PR maestro Mike Barry was a masterstroke.
Purdy was an influential figure in both Harbour and Blues rugby and his loss was felt throughout the Auckland rugby community. The creation of a new piece of silverware in his honour has added even more to an already fiercely contested relationship, and this was also a match where Blues Super 12 jerseys for 2003 could well have been finalised over a series of tantalising match-ups. But still the big numbers didn't turn up.
What's more embarrassing, from an Auckland perspective at least, is that there was the same amount of people at the WestpacTrust Stadium in Wellington (whose population is less than half the size of Auckland's) the night before to see the Lions _ horribly unpredictable at the best of times _ squaring off against bottom-of-the-table Northland on a Friday night in the capital city. It's a meeting that only has a limited appeal for many on what is always a big night at Courtney Place, but the Cake Tin still had more taken seats than those that were empty. The Auckland rugby union website tells us that it's now easier and cheaper than ever before to take the family along to Eden Park for a day at the rugby. There are no less than 73 locations throughout the city where tickets for games at the park can be purchased, for as little as $10 for adults and $5 for children.
Encouragement can certainly be taken from the increased crowd numbers at Blues home games this year but New Zealand's northernmost Super 12 team still has a distance to travel before it reaches world-beater status once again. The success of the Auckland-based franchise, like any winning Super 12 side, is always going to rely on the success of its core union (just look at the Crusaders). So it's little wonder one of the six key objectives in Auckland rugby's new strategic plan is "to achieve community support". It's certainly easier said than done in a city like Auckland.