NEW ZEALAND: The government is to buy Toll New Zealand’s rail and ferry business, Prime Minister Helen Clark and Finance Minister Michael Cullen confirmed on May 5. The price had been a sticking point in negotiations (RG 4.08 p22), but has been agreed at NZ$665m to be settled by June 30.Cullen said it had proved ‘extremely difficult’ to run the railways without government support. The deal means the government will avoid paying subsidies to third parties, and ends a dispute over the implementation of a National Rail Access Agreement ‘that had the potential to destroy value in the business and erode the morale of the people who work in it.’The government will acquire assets with a book value of NZ$430m, including 180 mainline locomotives, 4?200 wagons, one train ferry and leases on two other ferries. The government had already bought back the infrastructure of the 4?000 km rail network for a token NZ$1 in 2003.’Selling off our public rail system in the early 1990s and the running-down of the asset afterward has been a painful lesson for New Zealand,’ said Cullen. ‘During the negotiations with Toll it transpired that buying the rail operating business including the ferries was the best way to increase investment in the industry and enable it to be more responsive to the needs of customers.’Toll retains the Tranzlink rail and road forwarding business, along with warehousing and contract logistics operations, and will have rent-free use of existing premises for six years.The framework agreement is subject to due diligence, and transitional arrangements are being discussed with Toll. Long-term plans for the structure of the rail industry are still under development.Toll Managing Director Paul Little said the company ‘had not been looking to sell’, but the deal ‘will give rail in New Zealand the opportunity to move forward in an environment with greater clarity and ability to better plan its development.’
Mississippi Rebels head coach Hugh Freeze stands on the sideline with quarterback Bo Wallace (14) during the third quarter against the Texas A&M Aggies at Kyle Field. (USA TODAY Sports)Last August, back when Mississippi State was unranked and largely overlooked, Dan Mullen sat in his office and contemplated an important question.Mississippi State had been picked to finish fifth in a loaded SEC West, but Mullen was building a program he hoped would compete for SEC and national championships, and he believed the Bulldogs had reached the point where those goals weren’t laughable. The Bulldogs were riding a streak of four consecutive bowl games, unprecedented in school history. With a veteran returning nucleus, they were primed for more success.FOOTBALL FOUR: Rating and debating college football and the PlayoffBut when it comes to football in the state of Mississippi, one thing trumps all else. A trophy shaped like a gold-plated football — it looked like nothing so much as a big egg — sat on a credenza outside his office, next to some giveaway posters. What was more significant, Mullen was asked, getting to bowl games or winning the Egg Bowl (beating Ole Miss)?“They bring very different results,” Mullen told USA TODAY Sports that late summer afternoon. “Going to four straight bowl games allows you to build your program. … For the program, going to bowl games is more important.”But he wasn’t finished.“To live on a daily basis in the state of Mississippi and to keep a smile on your face for 365 days of the year?” Mullen said. “Winning the Egg Bowl is much more important.”***It made sense at the time, back when five SEC West teams were ranked in various preseason polls — and Mississippi State was not. Now, the Bulldogs (10-1, 6-1 SEC) are ranked No. 4 in the College Football Playoff Top 25. Which at least for the moment means they have the inside track to the playoff. And which means the Egg Bowl is more important than ever.And yet, it might have been even bigger. A month ago, when Ole Miss (8-3, 4-3) took down Alabama and Mississippi State was in the midst of beating LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn, and both teams were ranked near the top of the polls, it seemed the stakes in the Egg Bowl might be winner-takes-the-world. But as Ole Miss has lost three of its past four, fading off the national radar and falling to No. 19 in the Playoff rankings, Mississippi State is in position to win the SEC West — if Auburn beats Alabama. And even if that doesn’t, happen, the Bulldogs might make the playoff anyway.Mississippi State Bulldogs head coach Dan Mullen and quarterback Dak Prescott (15) during the game against the Kentucky Wildcats in the second half at Commonwealth Stadium. Mississippi State defeated Kentucky 45-31. (USA TODAY Sports)But there are at least two characteristics of true college football rivalries: To the participants and the respective fan bases, no other rivalry could possibly be seen as more important. And because of that, the external stakes become secondary.It’s one thing for Mullen, who has coached at Florida, Notre Dame and Utah, among other stops, to compare the Ole Miss-Mississippi State rivalry this week to USC-Notre Dame, Florida-Florida State and BYU-Utah.FRONT SEVEN: Previewing the weekend’s best games “I don’t know any that have been as big or as nasty” as the Egg Bowl, Mullen said, because “… they aren’t like this. I think this is bigger than all of those rivalries.”When it comes to his embrace of the rivalry, you probably wouldn’t find many in Mississippi who would disagree. Mullen, a New Hampshire native, refers to Ole Miss exclusively as “The School Up North.” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, who grew up in the state, says, “It’s the pride of the state on the line, the pride of your university and your program. (To) so many, it means so much over the course of the next year to be able to live with the most prized possession of our program: the Egg Bowl.”In other words: Stakes? Who needs them?“The records don’t matter,” Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott said. “It doesn’t matter who has the better record. It wouldn’t matter if we were ranked (Nos.) 1 and 2. This game is just special.”For a change, it matters far beyond the state’s borders — which is nice, but hardly necessary to retain its relevance.Since Mullen’s arrival, Mississippi State has won four of five against Ole Miss. A year ago, the Bulldogs entered the final game of the regular season needing a win to get to a bowl game. There was talk — probably wrong-headed — that Mullen’s seat was getting a little warm.EXPERT PICKS: Week 14 game slate The Bulldogs forced overtime with a late field goal. They took the lead with a touchdown. When Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace took off for the goal line, it appeared the Rebels would get the chance to tie. But safety Nickoe Whitley stripped Wallace. The Bulldogs recovered in the end zone. The celebration began.“I really enjoyed my kids being born,” Mullen said. “I loved my wedding day. But … I can’t speak for what a drug would do for you, but I have a hard time imagining you could get more of a euphoric feeling than in that moment, in that deal. That’s a pretty special deal.“The result of that game will make you feel differently about yourself for a whole year.”***So imagine the feelings this time around for either team, either way it goes. Win, and the Bulldogs might be headed to the Playoff. For the Rebels, who had the same lofty aspirations only a few weeks ago, a win would mean dashing their rivals’ dreams. In a rivalry, that’s more than enough motivation — not that more is needed.“The Egg Bowl,” Freeze said, “motivates our team probably easier than any other week that we play. Definitely easier.”Back in August, Prescott got a similar question: What’s more important, winning the Egg Bowl or the SEC West?“The Egg Bowl,” he said. “For me personally, winning the SEC, I think everybody wants that. But in the state of Mississippi, that Egg Bowl is pretty deep.”And he continued: “If we win the SEC, I believe we’ll win the Egg Bowl.”This time around, if they win the Egg Bowl, they might win a lot more.