All Blacks great Buck Shelford says the key to stopping players from quitting rugby at a young age is to let them enjoy the game.

Shelford admitted rugby in the country is in trouble, with dwindling playing numbers at high school levels.

"The whole of New Zealand is in this conundrum where all of our players are dropping off at that age group and then after high school as well. We have to look at it and think to ourselves, 'what can we do to revive and stop young kids from leaving the game at the age of 13, 14, 15, 16, 17?'," he told Radio Sport Afternoons with Daniel McHardy.

"Let them enjoy their rugby. The more they enjoy it, the more they'll stay in it. There's no pressure from making a rep team. Leave the pressure of rep teams 'til when they get out of college."


Shelford was also critical of Super Rugby franchises for their role in signing young players.

"I've talked with Brian Lochore about this. We know about younger players who actually played for provinces and they get picked up by the Crusaders or the big franchises and they sit there… and then they bring in players from outside because these guys aren't up to standard yet. How often do those players who sit there for two or three years, sit there and they don't get used and then they bugger off?"

"Are some of these franchises holding on to too many players just for the sake of holding on to them? That's sad."

As revealed by the Weekend Herald, North Harbour will become New Zealand's first provincial union to dissolve its junior rep programme, following its decision to scrap their Roller Mills and under-14 teams, and the end-of-season Junior Club Representative Tournament.

The changes will see a focus on maximising engagement and growing participation by making sure kids have more fun, with North Harbour introducing a non-contact Rippa grade aimed at boys aged between 8-13, and under-15s and school grade girls teams.

Shelford said he never made an age group side as a young player, but it didn't impact his future.

"I got dropped out at primary school. They probably thought I was no good.

"I never made another team until I came to Auckland and made the Auckland under 17's. I still wanted to win, I still wanted to play rugby at the highest level.


"I look at it and go, well we didn't play outside the Bay of Plenty in my day… Do you really need it for the kids that are that young? They can still aspire to win. They still play for their club sides. Do you really need a representative team to play in another tournament?

"I don't think because you're not in a rep team, you'll stop developing. As you go through the college system most schools have pretty good coaches and they develop kids anyway and when they finish schools they go back to the club and get more development. So, do you really need to have representative football at a really young age?"