Auckland hits rock bottom - but we’ll be back

Woe is Auckland.

In decades to come, when Auckland is returned to its rightful status as a rugby powerhouse, we’ll look back upon the weekend of 15/16 July 2017 as the nadir. Rock bottom.

Auckland rugby – and we’re talking both codes here – is like the chronic alcoholic that has stolen from his sole remaining friend to buy a flagon of sherry and then accidently burned his house down while trying to cook a bacon sandwich at 3.00am.

That’s an apocryphal tale by the way – I don’t drink sherry.

The point is that things have gone beyond bad, well past terrible and ploughed on into the realms of utterly godawful.

To recap for anyone lucky enough to have been stricken blind and deaf over the weekend: The Blues lost to the Sunwolves and the Warriors have farewelled a tearful Manu Vatuvei with a performance so depressingly familiar that most who witnessed it would have been beyond weeping. Oh, and Shaun Johnson did his ACL and is gone for the season. And the World Cup.

Those calamities were a fitting way to round out a week when we – the cheery folks at Newsroom.co.nz – revealed that Eden Park’s weeping financial sores have developed into full blown leprosy.

Things are a bit shit right now.

But the great thing about bottoming out is that affords an opportunity for rebuilding and regeneration. This marvellous shining isthmus will recover from the scorching burns inflicted by the Sunwolves, Panthers, frail human physiology, and the legacy of moronic city planning.

Look hard enough and the positive signs are there.

Blues fans pining for a playmaker to rejuvenate the franchise might have spied the impressive figure of 22-year-old Otere Black ghosting between two Crusaders defenders and popping a lovely pass to create the Jordie Barrett try that consigned the previously unbeaten Crusaders to what may prove a very costly defeat.

Black will be a Blue next year.

Yes, the Blues’ track record when it comes to recruiting first fives is, er, a little patchy. But the omens are good with Black, who has spent a couple of seasons understudying for the fairly useful Beauden Barrett.

For starters, Black hails from the lower North Island hellhole of Palmerston North. Palmy, of course, isn’t all that far away from equally grim Levin – the spot where Auckland rugby struck Carlos Spencer gold while mining the outer wastelands for first-fives.

That’s a sign, if ever there was one.

"It’s time for the Warriors club to back the coach – and put the players on notice."

There are reasons, too, for optimism around the Warriors. That statement may provoke a splutter into a flat white or two but, let’s face it, this season wasn’t going anywhere anyway. That it is now utterly doomed is a blessing wrapped in a ligament tear.

The single season Hail Mary of signing Kieran Foran to partner Shaun Johnson, Issac Luke and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck has been fumbled in the end zone. It’s time now for the club to blow things up and start again. The club must develop or acquire a team of players with the mental fortitude to produce a relentless defensive effort every time they take the field.

Defence wins in the NRL. Period.

The last time the Warriors were any good for a sustained period they had a squad and a gameplan built around bloody-minded defence. Five tackles and kick for Manu might not have been the most thrilling offensive structure to behold, but Warriors fans must pine for the time when their biggest gripe was the lack of imagination on last tackle kick options and an inability to win finals matches in Townsville.

Being dead in the water will allow Stephen Kearney to have a long, hard look at his squad for the remainder of 2017. He will be able fully assess what he has at his disposal, and what needs to be done to ensure the club has the right mix of players in 2019. It could easily take that long, but Kearney knows the blueprint for NRL success well. He’s studied it under Wayne Bennett and Craig Bellamy, so he’ll get there. It’s time for the club to back the coach – and put the players on notice.

As for the city’s infrastructure issue, the albatross that is Eden Park is slowly losing its grip on Auckland’s neck.

That Auckland cocked up mightily by redeveloping Eden Park for the 2011 World Cup is now being sheeting home in form of dollar signs and numbers with lots of zeroes in them. It was a combination of public apathy, dithering by city officials, a powerful public lobby group and a mythical superior business case that saw redeveloping Eden Park win out over building a waterfront stadium for 2011.

“There is no business case for waterfront stadium,” a former All Blacks great told me when the 2011 stadium debate was at its peak.

Leaving aside that the business case for Eden Park was clearly shonky, my answer was then as it is now: “There was no business case for painting the roof of the Cistene Chapel either”.

Great public works aren’t designed to turn a profit – or even to break even. They enhance the lives of the citizenry, but that enhancement comes at a cost. They need to be funded and maintained by the public purse on an ongoing basis.

Auckland now faces a choice – continue funding Eden Park for the essentially private bodies that own it – Auckland Rugby and Auckland Cricket – or invest in a multi-purpose, downtown facility. Or, of course, do neither and have nothing.

It’s unlikely we’ll cock that one up again.

And the really good news is the five-to-ten years it will take for the downtown stadium to become a reality allows plenty of time for the rebuilding of the Blues and the Warriors.

Auckland will rise again. We’ll look back at this weekend and laugh about the dark old days. In about a decade.

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