Wellington’s Premier rugby competitions are set for a shake-up, to take effect from next season.
Club Rugby has obtained a copy of the WRFU’s proposals that has been sent out to the clubs which details two possible formats that will shorten the length of the competitions.
The rationale for the changes comes from two fronts. On one hand there is next year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan which sees something of a shuffle to make everything fit, followed after that by the introduction of the new global calendar. On the other there are pressures from players and the clubs themselves to fit the game around increasingly busy lives, with the WRFU having surveyed players after the end of the season.
Since the introduction of the criteria-based 14-team competition in 2015 each year has seen a slightly different format used. In 2015 the Swindale Shield saw teams only play 11 of the 13 teams, the following year saw those two extra games squeezed (unpopularly) into midweek night slots, 2017 the discarding of the Hardham Cup final, and finally last year’s adoption of the 7/7 Jubilee-Hardham split.
Last year saw every team play 19 matches, with the eight teams in Premier and Premier Reserve that made it to finals day playing two more on top of that. At 21 competition games Wellington’s season is the longest in the country, comparing to 18 in Canterbury Metro, Waikato, and Manawatu, just 16 in Taranaki, and 19 in Auckland (including their early season knockout competition). Even the pre-2015 format entailed 20 matches to find the season champions.
The two proposals each force a compromise on the current status quo, with the season planned for both a later start and an earlier finish. The just-completed season started on 17 March with the Gala Day at Awakairangi and Maoribank Parks, and finished on 4 August at the Petone Rec. The proposals would see competitions start in early April, and be done by the end of July.
Proposal A retains last year’s Jubilee and Hardham Cup format (seven teams in each with six games and a bye, followed by semi-finals and finals) in full, but shortens the Swindale Shield to just eight games. This would see the 14 sides split into two pools of seven, playing each team in the pool plus two teams in a crossover format, presumably to ensure continuity of Derby Day and historical matchups (like the McBain Shield). However this would see one points table used across both pools, meaning that the side awarded the trophy might not play the strong teams in the other pool, and the teams that finish 7th and 8th might face vastly different schedules. It also retains one of the more unpopular aspects of this year’s format with the Premier Reserve side’s second round fate determined by the performance of their Premiers.
Proposal B makes the compromise the other way, retaining the full 13-round Swindale Shield but at the expense of the Jubilee and Hardham Cups round which would be shortened to a three-week knockout format. The 7/7 format would be retained with the Swindale winners and the team finishing 8th getting first-round byes.
With this the Premier Reserve Ed Chaney and HD Morgan sections would be decided on their own merits, rather than those of their Premiers.
In both proposals there are no midweek games or ‘double rounds’ programmed.
Proposal A would see the eight Swindale games played as four-home and four-away, while Proposal B would retain the season-opening Gala Day followed by six-home and six-away.
Club Rugby’s view is that change is required – as an example OBU used 52 different players in their Premier side this season and Norths wouldn’t have been far off that, and injuries disproportionally affect the lesser lights and the overall quality of the competition – and that if either proposal is adopted, then Proposal B would be our choice as it doesn’t lessen the overall integrity of the competition to the extent that Proposal A does, but keeping players whose teams have been eliminated playing in the last two weeks will be a challenge.
A more ideal fit would be a 12-team competition that splits into two of 6 teams as Canterbury’s Metro competition does, which would take 18 weeks including finals. However that would require either a hard decision or two by WRFU to drop teams from Premier and a reversion somewhat to the pre-2015 format (and we’ve seen what banishment from the Premier grade did to the Western Suburbs club), or a couple of mergers (even just their top teams) amongst the remaining clubs.
The proposals don’t mention the other club grades, but it can be assumed that at the very least the Women’s and Colts competitions will also finish at the same time as the Premier ones, given that the changes also affect the dates of the Farah Palmer Cup and U19 tournament.
The major changes under the new global calendar are:
Locally the Mitre 10 Cup and the U19 tournament are likely to come forward at least one week. The National Sevens will also be played before Christmas.