Auckland Rugby is tapping into a hitherto untapped market as it looks to use the sport as tool for inclusion across its diverse region.
In conjunction with New Zealand Rugby and ATEED, the ARU have run an international student programme for the last fortnight. Based at either Eden Park or nearby Nixon Park, 28 international tertiary students from the Auckland region have taken time out most mornings to learn about rugby from basic skills and drills, how rugby is such an important part of Kiwi culture, played games of tag, and had te reo classes. On Wednesday they were addressed by Keven Mealamu on rugby's values and how the game shaped him as a leader.
As you can imagine, there are a diverse range of nations, from Central American countries to China to Eastern Europe, most from non-traditional rugby communities. Many had never picked up a ball in their life but were chosen after a 'Have a Go' day on June 25.
There are around 80,000 international secondary or tertiary students in the Auckland region, so you can see the potential if even a small percentage of them took to rugby, especially in an area identified as being of high strategic importance to New Zealand Rugby.
"It's a massive captive market. A lot of students who come to Auckland know New Zealanders love the All Blacks, but the opportunities to get involved are limited, so we need to reach out to these communities and tailor these opportunities," says Auckland Rugby's head of participation development Simon Devoy, formerly of New Zealand Rugby, whose strategies in the Auckland region dovetail nicely with this programme.
The students have caught on quickly and formed a strong bond, even organising a Facebook page, and they have plans for a dinner tonight.
"It's been amazing to see how quickly they have picked it all up. The skills have developed tenfold in 10 days," says Devoy.
The students have received tuition from the likes of coaches Brent Semmons and Ant Strachan, head of Auckland Rugby's international academy. Some of the boys in that have helped out or trained with the new students.
Where to from here for those students whose latent love of the game has been ignited? Some may desire to filter into clubs from 2018 or even just play touch or tag in summer.
"It's a big ask to have a novice player slot into a traditional rugby structure. What we are looking to do is keep them involved in the game, with alternative programmes, perhaps with Saturday or Sunday games," says Devoy, who would like to see this pilot programme continued next year and onwards.
Slovakian Juraj Znanec is a student at the international language school. His English is rapidly improving and so have his rugby skills in this programme. He has fallen in love with the game and would love to find a club for next year.
"I know the All Blacks, but for me this is something really different," he says.
American student Carolyn Ton did not even know who the All Blacks were three weeks ago, but she got to feel the atmosphere at the third Lions test at Eden Park. She loved it.
"I didn't realise you didn't have to be super strong or fast. You can have people with different skills. It's only been 10 days but we've all got really close, even if we don't all speak the same language," says Ton.
Thankfully, then, there is the common language of rugby. Ton plans to return next month to Pennsylvania State University and take up the game for her college.
Auckland Rugby is looking at hosting the students at Eden Park to see Auckland play in the Mitre 10 Cup.