Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Auckland hits standstill

Age-group players at the end of a Super Rugby curtain-raiser at Eden Park. The big attraction has been part of the problem. Photo / Photosport
Age-group players at the end of a Super Rugby curtain-raiser at Eden Park. The big attraction has been part of the problem. Photo / Photosport

When the Blues returned to action last night after a bye week, they did so with a greater burden of responsibility than they realised.

Someone needs to kickstart a rugby revival in the wider Auckland region, to persuade more people to play and even more not to jack it in.

After enjoying a spike in playing numbers following the 2011 World Cup, the greater Auckland region has known only stagnation. Total playing numbers have stayed around the 40,000-mark for the past few years.

It's an impressive total compared with the rest of the country - three times the number of Wellington - but Auckland's population is at least three times bigger than the capital's. And it's growing, which is what everyone charged with making rugby the game of choice in the city is concerned about.

Auckland is expanding but rugby is not.

Large pockets of the region have rugby black spots where the game is neither played nor watched.

Drop-out rates among teenagers are believed to be higher there than elsewhere and, while it is not indicative necessarily of any failing of the grassroots structure, the Blues continue to massively underperform in front of a fanbase that is the smallest proportionally of any of the New Zealand franchises.

Auckland isn't delivering what New Zealand Rugby want. A strong Auckland region means a stronger New Zealand and, whether that's true or not, the national body believe it to be and have long had that goal as a key strategic priority.

"When we show the detail of our scoreboard for 2015, we were spectacularly unsuccessful in Auckland," says NZR chief executive Steve Tew. "We set a target and didn't achieve it. We have had a good re-think and we are re-modelling the way we work with provincial unions up here.

"It is a hard market to crack and, like most organisations that have a national focus, if you don't succeed [in Auckland], you are going to struggle generally."

NZR's broadly defined goal is to make rugby the game of choice in the wider Auckland region. That means increasing playing numbers.

The target for growth was set at five per cent in 2015 and, as Tew said, it was in no danger of being met.

Simon Devoy, who was employed in the middle of last year as NZR's wider Auckland strategy initiatives manager, is hopeful that the lessons have been learned.

He says there are many reasons why Auckland remains stagnant.

The proliferation of choice is one reason. Schools such as Westlake Boys' High have in excess of 40 sports on offer to students, numbers emulated at other major schools, such as Auckland Grammar.

The ethnic diversity of the region means there are swathes of kids growing up in houses with no affinity to rugby. Without a direct link, there are thousands of kids in Auckland who don't have the expectation they "should" play rugby.

The variation in the size of age-group players is fingered by Devoy as a particular problem for Auckland and one they need to address. "We need to refine the attractiveness of the playing experience," says Devoy.

"Providing meaningful competitions and having enough teams in that grade is hugely important. What we know is that no one really enjoys games when they are thumped.

"Last year, we created an Auckland-wide under-69kg competition. We had 28 teams from 22 schools and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, which is why we are doing it again."

The long-term aim is to see Auckland outperform the rest of the country in regards to participation growth.

The Blues, as the flagship team of the region, whether they want this burden or not, would undoubtedly help in this quest to widen interest in rugby if they were regularly challenging at the top end of the table.

Chronic underachievement and disarray at the Blues hasn't sold the game well.

"We have done some research and know that a successful Super Rugby franchise has a direct impact on fan engagement," Devoy says. "It would be helpful [if the Blues were performing better] but I think they are working really hard to get their house in order."

- Herald on Sunday

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW
Stats provided by

© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf04 at 29 May 2017 16:19:39 Processing Time: 1278ms