Sports clubs could be key to keeping depression at bay for many rural Kiwis, says former All Black Sir John Kirwan.

Kirwan, who has long been raising awareness of mental stress and depression, said sports clubs were "fundamental to wellness" in rural New Zealand.

They had the power to bring rural communities together and we should not underestimate their importance, he said.

"Rugby clubs are dying in the cities but they are still very much the heart of rural communities. I think they need to understand their importance," Kirwan said in an interview with Bayleys' Country magazine.


"For some in rural communities, their immediate mental reaction to tough times is to work harder and adopt an attitude of 'she'll be right, mate'.

"We are trying to break down those traits and get people to open up a bit more. By getting some balance back into their life, by coaching their local rugby team or playing sport, they are able to get away from the day-to-day grind."

Sport-centered community centres could become hubs of activity where all members of the community could come together.

Mental stress is a significant burden in New Zealand, particularly in rural areas, where the impact can be more severe due to limited access to mental health services.

Brent Anderson, head of community rugby at New Zealand Rugby, said rural sports clubs contributed hugely to community spirit.

"When a town's rugby team is doing well, you'll notice that the town itself has a real positive vibe," he told the latest issue of Country.

He said rural communities had undergone huge changes over the decades.

"You only have to drive through small rural towns in New Zealand to see the changes - the banks have left, the post office no longer exists, those sorts of things.

"The number of people working in rural communities and the times that they work will have an impact on their rugby teams. But many of the clubs have taken steps to accommodate these changes and keep themselves going."

Dean File, who is president of both Shannon Rugby Football Club in Manawatu and Horowhenua-Kapiti Rugby Football Union, said changes in supporter habits and drink driving laws had put a strain on club finances.

"People can turn up to watch a game and then just go home, rather than go on to the club house. Drink-driving laws have made people more conscious about alcohol intake, so clubs have to find other ways of raising income - they can't rely on money from the bar," he said.

"We've always tried to create a family-friendly environment, to involve as much as possible the wives and partners and children of the players."

A 2011 study on drug and alcohol policies in Kiwi sports clubs highlighted the influence clubs can have on the health, social and economic wellbeing of the communities they served.

Many sports clubs reported that prior to implementing a drug and alcohol policy the main attraction and focus of players was drinking rather than individual or team performance.

Post-policy, they found that player performance improved and, as result, their membership increased.