Rugby: Grassroots stung by Heartland cancellation

Provincial rugby has been dealt a major blow, with news that the 2020 Heartland Championship season has been axed, as NZ Rugby makes tough calls to ease the financial pressure. 

But sacrifices are being made at the top level to ensure the survival of the grassroots game.

Named after two of New Zealand Rugby's all time greats, the Heartland Championship personifies provincial rugby.

"They've been right at the core of developing so many great players," said NZR chief executive Mark Robinson. "And there's so much folklore around the game in New Zealand." 

But the Meads and Lochore Cups will now stay put in North Otago and South Canterbury for another year.

Covid-19 has already put a halt to all rugby in New Zealand and Robinson was left with little choice, but to concede the Heartland game was next.

"As we stand here today, this is a one-year call and we are committed to that."

The unions accept this blow to provincial New Zealand had to happen, but South Canterbury chief executive Craig Calder still concedes it's a bitter pill to swallow.

"It's pretty tough, when you have to tell the management team who have been working on it for a number of months, 'I'm sorry there's no championship this year'," said Calder.

But while the outlook for 2020 is grim, the sacrifices made at the sport's elite level will hopefully help ensure the survival of rugby at the very roots of the game.

"The top earners get paid very well, and they recognise that and they take that very seriously," said New Zealand Rugby Players Association chief executive Rob Nichol.

"Where we're able to insulate and protect the more the vulnerable players in our ranks, then we will do that."

Whether that means pay cuts to the top earners or halting competition at the bottom, Robinson is confident progress is being made.

"We're really pleased that we've gone hard and early at this," said Robinson. "We think to wait for a while and take time to pause would be irresponsible."

NZ Rugby faces a heavy financial battle and it's clear no competition is safe.

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