The rugby priesthood has always been slow to catch on. They relabelled Maori All Blacks, "honorary white" fellas to fall into step with apartheid South Africa's race laws, and saw nothing wrong, More recently they've been very reluctant to embrace the one growth areas in their sport - female participation.

Now, on the eve of a tour by the British Lions, there seems to be a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth about the decline of the "national religion." Kids are turning their backs at grassroots participation level we're told, and as an object of mass worship, rugby seems to suffering the same dwindling congregations as the church-based religion.

As a child of the bad old days when rugby and military drill were both compulsory at my state secondary school, and reluctance to participate in either, was treated with equal gravity, I see this revolution in the cultural landscape as something to celebrate. Though I can appreciate the mood at rugby HQ might be less welcoming.

Of the three cultural pillars of ye olde New Zealand, rugby has, on the face of it, managed to hold up rather better than racing and beer. No doubt thanks to the mighty All Blacks and their winning ways. Like Christmas and Easter is for the Christians, the big rugby test matches have been events for even the lapsed believers of the nation, to gather around their screens to enjoy.


But in a Faustian pact with the devil, the rugby bosses could not resist the multi-million dollars, Sky-TV dangled before their eyes. In so doing, they became a closed sect, where games, once viewable for free on public television, are now only available via a Sky basic monthly subscription fees of $49.91 a month, plus $29.90 for the sports package plus $8.81 a month for the rugby channel.

At last count, Statistics NZ estimates there are 1,718,500 households in New Zealand. Meanwhile, Sky TV claims to have 304,000 "high-value customers" who subscribe to both Sky Basic and Sky Sports. In other words, only one in every six New Zealand households is capable of sitting down at home and observing the big rugby holy days. I'm ancient enough to recall getting up at some ungodly hour to listen to radio coverage from South Africa or Britain, but somehow I don't see rugby without pictures, ever catching on again.

We're going through the same sort of disconnect with the America's Cup yachting now. No matter how hard the sports journalists try to beat the nation into a frenzy of excitement, a big majority of us are cut off from the actual event as it unfolds. I'm no great follower of sport, but in a gladiatorial contest like the America's Cup, I used to enjoy joining in with the majority of the nation to watch the battle as it unfolded, boo at Russell Coutts and all that. But like rugby, yachting has chosen to retreat behind a high paywall, locking out the mass fan base it once enjoyed.

In the era of professional sport, both games argue they had no choice. Fair enough, but having decided to turn their top players into highly paid rock stars, who model underwear and compete with Shortland Street starlets on the celebrity circuit, the rugby priesthood can hardly be surprised if the old mass congregation has dwindled.

And once the older generation started back-sliding, is it any surprise the kids are less and less interested. The solution? Perennial gadfly, Winston Peters hammers on about copying the Australian law making "sport of national significance" available on free television. But I wonder if there's even a problem to solve.

With the younger generation leading the way in proving there is life after sport and rugby, the world of live music and theatre, in Auckland anyway, has never seemed healthier. That we should be seeking way to revive the old world of rugby, racing and booze seems ridiculous.