Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Grassroots' barren fields

Winning the World Cup initially boosted playing numbers but it seems Generation Y are a hard bunch to please as numbers fall, writes Gregor Paul

Rugby is struggling to appeal to young players. Photo / Stephen Parker
Rugby is struggling to appeal to young players. Photo / Stephen Parker

Nearly two years on since that triumphant night at Eden Park and the value of winning the World Cup is apparent at the top end of the game but out of currency at the community level.

The World Cup legacy is obvious: it has made the All Blacks a more marketable and commercially viable enterprise. Rugby's biggest brand have leveraged their world champion status to become bigger.

The All Blacks, as world champions, continue to attract interest from potential new sponsors with the existing family mostly keen to recommit. Winning the World Cup has had almost untold financial benefits for the national team and the vastly improved commercial picture - with the NZRU running at a profit and increasing its surplus to $50 million - is largely down to the All Blacks vindicating their position as the number one side with victory against France two years ago.

AIG would probably never have come on board but for Stephen Donald's match-winning penalty. Other long-term sponsors may have questioned their commitment had things turned out differently.

A different picture is emerging at the grass-roots - one where the magic of that night has worn off. The New Zealand Rugby Union's plan was to use the World Cup to capture the imagination of the old and the young.

Hosting would be a legacy opportunity in itself: winning would add another dimension and the NZRU's goal was to see interest in the game explode in 2012 and 2013. The vision was of rugby becoming the sport of the people as the myth suggests it is.

It hasn't worked out like that and while the legacy has delivered more benefits at the higher end of the game than anyone forecast, it has underachieved in the equally important aim of boosting participation. Playing numbers, after a small rise last year, are stagnating.

It wouldn't be quite such a concern were it not for the fact that the biggest drop off continues to be among teenagers.

Generation Y are a hard bunch to please and while the NZRU has researched extensively how to connect with its youth, and been willing to adapt, evolve and modify - pander some might say - they still can't make rugby a winner.

Teen registrations in 2013 are down three per cent and the problem is especially acute in Auckland. That's partly a reflection of the greater volume of choice available to teens in the country's largest city. It's also partly due to the diverse ethnic mix of the city and the NZRU's uncertainty as to how to best market and sell the game to, say, the Asian community.

The NZRU have made $500,000 of extra funding available to tackle the problem of declining teen involvement, with the bulk of the cash likely to be spent in Auckland. "New Zealand Rugby's community strategy includes a specific focus on secondary schools and teenage rugby as well as helping position rugby as the sport of choice in Auckland," said manager of community rugby and provincial unions, Brent Anderson.

"While we have seen good momentum at most levels of the community game in recent years, teenage participation continues to be a challenge declining by more than two thousand over the past five years. We are aiming to increase the number of teens choosing rugby as their sport of choice."

Auckland has to be the focus because it has the most growth potential.

Total playing numbers in the greater Auckland region are disproportionately low. South Auckland could almost be described as untapped and the need to connect with teens has never been so great.

For all that the picture looks rosy - with four world cups in the trophy cabinet and the All Blacks riding high - total playing numbers sit on 148,000 and haven't enjoyed any significant growth for five years.

To put this in perspective, the IRB has announced its goal is to grow playing numbers by one million by 2016.

"Rugby is currently enjoying unprecedented interest and participation," says IRB chief executive Brett Gosper.

"The IRB is committed to continued investment in the game at all levels in order that more men, women and children in more countries are able to access and enjoy the sport and its character-building values.

"England 2015 provides us with a unique opportunity to harness the power of the Rugby World Cup brand for the good of the sport in the host nation, Europe and beyond."

If the governing body gets anywhere near fulfilling its ambition, New Zealand will be under more threat to retain its number one status.

Despite the fact the IRB will be targeting growth in developing more than developed nations, the likes of England and France, who already have comparatively huge numbers of players, still have room for growth. Rugby participation remains relatively low for their population sizes as it does in Japan, Italy, USA, Russia, South Africa and even Australia.

In other words, there may be the biggest growth surge the game has known and it will be happening everywhere but New Zealand. That won't be for want of trying or for a lack of innovation by the NZRU.

If hosting and winning the World Cup can't drive a sustained boom, there's a fair chance New Zealand may have reached saturation. The All Blacks are a big brand working off a little base - soon they will be facing a handful of big brands working off big bases.

- Herald on Sunday

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