25 May 2016

Is Auckland dropping the ball on rugby?

7:16 am on 25 May 2016

Rugby has long been regarded as New Zealand's national game but the sport's leaders fear it could become irrelevant in the country's biggest city.

rugby ball

New Zealand Rugby has launched a five-year plan to halt rugby's decline in Auckland Photo: 123RF

Increasing ethnic diversity in Auckland, teenagers giving up the game when they move from primary to secondary school and a rising number of sporting options are all playing a part.

Of the 150,000 registered rugby players in New Zealand, 40,000 come from the wider Auckland region.

But that 40,000 equated to less than three percent of the wider Auckland population - and that does not sit well with New Zealand Rugby.

In a bid to halt the sport's decline in Auckland, New Zealand Rugby has launched a five-year plan to turn things around.

A 2014 joint survey between Auckland Council and Sport New Zealand showed rugby sits just 20th on the list of sports participated in by Aucklanders.

Last year an attempt to increase participation by five per cent across the Auckland region failed.

Steve Tew during Keven Mealamu's announcement of his retirement.

Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew said that forced the union to make Auckland rugby a top priority.

"It's a simple matter of metrics and if we are not relevant in this broader geographical space that spans the Bombay Hills to the north of Albany, then we won't be relevant - it's as simple as that."

One area New Zealand Rugby is targeting is secondary school students.

Wider Auckland strategy initiatives manager Simon Devoy said large numbers of children were leaving the sport in the move from primary to secondary school.

"Kids equally, they love the combat and they love they love smashing people if you like, came back in the feedback (survey). But equally there's a concern about getting hurt and primarily that kids give up or carry on playing is around the adult experience. And coaches have a disproportionately high impact on that so essentially what they're saying is the better the coach, the more kids tend to enjoy rugby."

A number of initiatives have been introduced in an attempt to encourage more young teenage players, such as a new under 69kg competition, a 10-aside tournament and Ripper Rugby - non tackle rugby.

But even with all these varieties of the game, rugby was still not the most played sport in Auckland.

Children play a school rugby game near the Takapuna Rugby Football Club on 3 September 2011, ahead of the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

Children play a school rugby game in Takapuna, Auckland, ahead of the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Photo: AFP

College Sports Auckland runs all the school sport competitions in Auckland, working with nearly 100,000 students.

Head Dave Currie said rugby was only the third most played sport in Auckland schools, behind netball and football.

He said the biggest problem facing rugby in schools was the perception of the sport.

"Football is a simpler game, it's easier to coach and to umpire. Rugby is a bit more complex and I think that's part of the trouble.

"The other part of the trouble, I think, there is some concern from parents around concussion and whatever, and I think that is having some impact as well."

Mr Currie said sports needed to be acutely aware of the changing make up of Auckland's ethnic population and the way sport was viewed.

Daniel ( Taniela ) Tupou of Sacred Heart makes a break. Auckland Secondary Schools 1st XV rugby union match, Sacred Heart v Kelston Boys at Sacred Heart College, Auckland, New Zealand. Saturday 10th May 2014.

Daniel Tupou was an international hit when his blockbusting abilities in Auckland's school boy competition were captured on film. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

"The sports that are going to do well are those that understand the environment in Auckland and provide competition structures and formats that meet the needs of the emerging and existing student population.

"So recognize what's happening in Auckland and adapt to those changes, if you do that well then you'll remain competitive, if you don't then you'll struggle."

He said if New Zealand Rugby could achieve this, then the national game would be Auckland's game once again.

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