Mitre 10 Cup 2020: Seven teams reportedly consider withdrawal over player payments

Provincial rugby in New Zealand is heading towards a crisis, with as many as seven teams in danger of pulling out of this year's Mitre 10 Cup. 

Taranaki, Northland, Southland and North Harbour fear they will not be able to pay their players, while Manawatu, Wellington and Otago are currently "on the fence", according to NZME reports. 

The other seven teams have apparently committed to the competition, which has been rescheduled to start on September 11. 

When announcing the rescheduled dates for the Mitre 10 Cup earlier this month, NZ Rugby (NZR) chief executive Mark Robinson said he was delighted to schedule a full 14-team Premiership and Championship.

But provinces are struggling for income, due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has already forced NZR to cancel the Heartland Championship and all levels of representative rugby below the Mitre 10 Cup and Farah Palmer Cup, saving the national body $20 million.

But a handful of provincial unions have refuted any suggestion they may be forced to withdraw from the competition.

"We have absolute faith in the processes at play and believe there is more desire than ever to make sure this Mitre 10 Cup goes ahead," said Wellington Rugby Football Union chief executive Matt Evans.

"WRFU, NZR and players are all incredibly motivated to make sure Wellington is represented."

Evans' North Harbour counterpart said his union is "committed to playing in this year's Mitre 10 cup and FPC." 

New Zealand Rugby General Manager Participation and Development Steve Lancaster said they were working alongside the unions and the New Zealand Rugby Players’ Association to ensure all 14 teams would be competing in this year’s Mitre 10 Cup.  

"It is our absolute intention to have all 14 teams competing this year and we are confident that a full Mitre 10 Cup will be up and running from September 11," said Lancaster.

Provincial unions have been negotiating with the NZ Rugby Players' Association for the past month, trying to agree on a wage cut that would allow all 14 teams to compete this year. 

According to 1 NEWS, unions are asking players to take a 30 percent cut for the 2020 season, with provincial union sources telling NZME that they and the players' association are "10 percent apart" over an agreed wage.

Should they fail to agree, some players wouldn't fit into their respective unions' wage bills and could not participate.

North Harbour Rugby chairman Gerard van Tilborg has told NZME that the situation is dire.

"Harbour is absolutely committed to playing in a provincial union competition, provided it can be adequately funded," van Tilborg says. "The situation in negotiations between New Zealand Rugby and the players' association are making that marginal.

"The cuts aren't big enough. We've had staff take cuts between 30-45 percent salary. 

"We've spoken to most of our players, who have been very supportive, but we obviously can't go outside the collective and we need to provide a similar bottom-end ratio of roughly a 30 percent cut to make [fielding a team] viable.

"Unless we can get through this season in reasonable condition, we're better off considering the offer from New Zealand Rugby to pull out of the provincial competition to preserve our ability to compete in 2021 and beyond."