New Zealanders in rural areas are raising concerns at how they will watch the upcoming Rugby World Cup, as the government introduce legislation in a last-ditch effort to make the tournament more accessible for fans in the rugby-mad nation.
This year rights for the World Cup have been bought by telecommunications giant Spark, who will livestream games on a special website, Spark Sport, for a one-off fee of NZ$80.
But tens of thousands of New Zealanders in rural and remote areas say they will be unable to stream the tournament due to slow internet speeds, and are concerned they will miss out on the event.
It is estimated around 40,000 households will not have access to World Cup broadcasts, with Spark saying around 10 per cent of its customers will be unable to access livestreams due to poor internet connectivity.
Blair Mirfin is a farmer in the remote Grey Valley on the South Island’s west coast. The local rugby coach says people are jittery about how they will follow the tournament, and heading into pubs and hotels is unpractical and expensive for many.
“We’re out in the bloomin’ back blocks here and internet reception is terrible, you’re lucky to get the odd pocket here and there,” says Mirfin.
“It should absolutely be on free-to-air channels – it’s the country’s national sport. The government should be sticking some money into letting us watch rugby. I am sure it is bringing in a lot of money through tourists and what not.
“I’m pretty annoyed about it, with what farmers do we’re on a tight schedule we can’t just drop everything and go to the pub even if its going to be on there. It’s a pretty awkward situation all around.”
Minister of justice Andrew Little says rural Kiwis deserve to watch the World Cup, and has introduced a bill to parliament to allow licensed premises to remain open for the duration of the tournament in Japan.
“It’s pretty clear some clubs are having difficulty persuading their district licensing committees to grant a special licence to extend their hours for this obviously special event, and so it makes sense for parliament to allow clubs to meet a community desire,” Little said.
But Mike Connors, CEO of the West Coast Rugby Union Club, says many people don’t like going to pubs to watch games as alcohol can make things rowdy and the sound and quality of the experience often aren’t up to scratch.
“Most of New Zealand is a pretty rural farming country, so this is a pretty strange decision,” said Connors. “Some people just won’t be able to watch, there are no contingencies in place.
“If you live 150km from a town, are you going to drive in to watch it? Personally I don’t even like the atmosphere at bars. A lot of people are the same.”
The opposition National party’s sports and recreation spokesperson Nikki Kaye applauded the government’s move to keep pubs open longer, but said their plans were last-minute and lacking detail as the tournament was now only weeks away.
“Kiwi rugby fans cannot wait for the government to get its act together. National will be pushing for this issue to be dealt with urgently.” said Kaye in a statement.
A spokesperson for Spark said government initiatives and investment would see 100 per cent of New Zealanders able to access reliable internet by the end of 2020, and in the interim it had signed a deal with free-to-air TVNZ for the All Blacks pool games to play with a one-hour delay, and the semi-final and final – if Steve Hansen’s side feature – to air live and free.
“There is a small minority who may not be able to stream it – and that many of these people live rural areas and are passionate rugby fans,” said a Spark spokesperson.
“The Rugby World Cup is a highly anticipated event on every rugby fan’s calendar. Ensuring pubs who want to show the Rugby World Cup at their premises can stay open for the matches will mean more rugby all round – which we see as a good thing for New Zealanders.”
But Connors said the new streaming arrangement had not been tested and Spark had a poor track record of delivering for rural Kiwis.
“Can Spark deliver? That’s the big question at the moment. Everyone is concerned. They’re striking a lot of problems. This is the first time they’ve done it – that’s a hell of a gamble.” – Guardian