National icon Colin Meads has urged rugby bosses to keep the game's heartland in their thinking as the 15-man code undergoes a nationwide make-over.
The AA Rewards Heartland Championship, which begins next weekend, is set for review following the changes set to be implemented in the Air New Zealand Cup from 2009.
At present 12 teams take part, split into two pools of six.
At the end of the round-robin phase, the top six compete for the Meads Cup while the bottom six contest the Lochore Cup.
The grassroots have been hit hard in recent years, with the rural-urban population drain and an economic downturn hitting hard.
Rugby has battled on in regions such as the East Coast, West Coast and Buller, although with each season it is getting harder for clubs to field sides.
Meads said while the top-flight dominated the thoughts of many in the professional age, he said neglecting the heartland would have severe consequences long-term.
"The grassroots are so important for New Zealand rugby," Meads told Yahoo!Xtra.
"It is where so many talented kids come from, young players who go on to make a name for themselves at some of the bigger provinces.
"And it is so important that it continues to remain as strong as possible and supported by rugby bosses.
"Rugby has to be a sport that is available for all of New Zealand.
"And for people from the Heartland provinces, they have to know that if they do play well, then they have the chance to move on to bigger things.
"That is why rugby has to remain strong and available in grass roots areas."
Meads is one of the most-travelled rugby figures in New Zealand.
Thirty-seven years after playing the last of his 55 tests, he is a regular on the speaking circuit, a calling which takes him to rugby strongholds the length and breadth of the nation.
He said some of what he had seen and heard on his travels had provided cause for concern.
"Heartland rugby is not as strong as it was a few years ago," Meads said.
"Some areas have literally lost teams of players."
Local pride survives in Meads
Meads played a staggering 18 seasons for King Country, including playing on into the 1972 season after his All Black career had ended the previous year.
Throughout the 1960s him and his younger brother Stan formed a formidable combination in the union's trademark maroon jerseys.
The Meads family links continued into the 1980s when Colin's son Glynn first played for and then coached King Country.
Meads snr also coached the Rams, before being appointed the union's president in 1987.
But as the 2008 AA Rewards Heartland Championship nears, he said King Country had not been immune to the tough times.
"A few years ago there were 29 clubs in the King Country. Now there are nine," Meads said.
"And what is happening in my province is happening right around New Zealand. Clubs are going under because of player numbers and finances.
"And there never will be another All Black from King Country.
"In the King Country, we know that as soon as we get a good young player, we will lose him when he is about 12 or 15 to a scholarship at one of the big city schools.
"They get them there with offers of free education and things like that.
"So many things have changed since rugby went professional. And club rugby and heartland rugby have been affected badly."
Phil Coffin is the last of King Country's All Blacks to date, playing three mid-week matches on the 1996 tour of South Africa.
Despite Meads' status of a living legend in the central North Island province, he said he had increasingly taken a step back from King Country rugby, saying it was time for a fresh voice to provide motivation for the Rams.
But he remained a keen spectator and club-man whenever time permitted.
"I have taken a step back from many aspects of rugby," he said.
"Everyone has heard enough and seen enough of blimmin Colin Meads.
"I have been to two or three club games this season and spend a bit of time at my own club (Waitete).
"But if anyone from the King Country union wanted me to talk to the provincial or age-grade teams then I am always available."
The Meads legacy lives on
The Meads Cup is now the most sought-after silverware in the Heartland Championship.
Last year it was won by North Otago, who beat Wanganui 25-8 in their final in Oamaru.
The Lochore Cup, named after fellow rugby great Sir Brian Lochore, was taken out by Poverty Bay, beating South Canterbury 38-35 in their dramatic final.
Meads described having a trophy named after him as a "huge honour", but admitted it was almost a case of Lochore getting one over him.
"As far as the Heartland Championship goes, well it is great and competitive. Anyone of three or four teams can win it," he said.
"But it does feel funny to have the trophy for the top section of the Heartland Championship named after me.
"When I was first approached I thought it was great there would be two trophies, the Lochore Cup and the Meads Cup. And I thought the Lochore Cup should have been the trophy for the top sides.
"But Brian got in first and said he believed the Meads Cup should be for the top sides. He got in first with the NZRU and he got his way.
"I just think with what Brian has done, he should have had the top trophy. Everyone has heard enough about Colin Meads."
Players throughout this year's competition have also been given another carrot to strive for.
The NZRU confirmed last week that a New Zealand Heartland 15 would tour America in November.
They will play two matches on tour against a Pacific Coast 15 and a USA Select 15.
The final match would double as the stadium opener at a new sporting facility in Salt Lake City.
Meads said the return of the touring side was long overdue.
"Now that is something that I am thrilled about," he said.
"I got really upset last year when they didn't organise a tour for them.
"They picked a team, gave them a jersey each and that was it. I was upset and I let the NZRU know about it too.
"Touring America will be a tremendous occasion for the players selected this year. And for some of those guys, it will be their version of playing for the All Blacks.
"It will be the only black jersey some of them will ever wear."
Just don't expect Meads to be on tour though.
When asked whether it was possible he would reprise his national representative management career, he said: "No chance, I have done my time.
"Someone else would do a far better job."
Yahoo!Xtra will profile a Heartland Hero each week in the AA Rewards Heartland Championship.
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