COMMENT:

Whatever changes and radical new ideas are being planned in Los Angeles in regard to the international rugby calendar, they are not going to save the game in New Zealand.

Right now New Zealand rugby is bobbing along above the water, but there is a massive hole in the hull and just like the Titanic, the game here is in danger of sinking.

Just as it turned out that the Titanic wasn't too big to sink, New Zealand rugby is not too big to fail.

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It's maybe preposterous to see a dystopian future when New Zealand Rugby banked a record profit last year from record revenue driven by the continued excellence of its national teams.

Global heavyweight Amazon is sniffing around the All Blacks as a potential broadcast commodity and the ambition of Spark to get involved will be enough in itself to bump up the value of the next rights deal.

These seem like halcyon days for rugby rather than the sport being on the brink of a stunning collapse.

But then again Enron looked a great long term bet the day before the receivers were called in and that's the problem with building a house of cards, it gives no warning when it might collapse.

And collapse has become a distinct possibility following NZR's commissioned review into schools rugby which has revealed just how steeply playing numbers are falling among teenage boys.

Rugby is categorically not the game of choice for boys aged 13-18. Figures from the last three years show that around 3000 boys give up rugby between the ages of 10 and 13.

Of those who were still playing at 13, more than half were lost to rugby by the time they were 18.

Damian McKenzie for Christ's College in 2013 - NZR's commissioned review into schools rugby revealed playing numbers are falling among teenage boys. Photo / Photosport
Damian McKenzie for Christ's College in 2013 - NZR's commissioned review into schools rugby revealed playing numbers are falling among teenage boys. Photo / Photosport

That's not the worst of it, though. The decline has been progressively steeper in the last three years so the total number of boys playing rugby every year is dropping.

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There were almost 10,000 nine-year-olds playing in 2016, but barely 9,000 in 2018. There were about 7,500 12-year-olds playing in 2016 but less then 7,000 in 2018 and if the trend continues rugby, in a surprisingly short time, will cease to exist as a grassroots sport.

Instead of being the national game, entwined in the social fabric of the country, it will be, for males at least, played only be the elite – those with the physical ability and mental desire to try to crack the professional ranks.

The concept of playing rugby for fun will be dead. Gone from the Saturday morning landscape will be humans of all shapes, sizes and abilities chasing a ball around a muddy field not because they see a future career in it, but because as ridiculous as it may be, they genuinely love doing it.

Schools will have a First XV and probably nothing else and clubs across the country will disappear.

It's already happening. In 2013 there were 225 secondary school teams in Auckland. That number declined to 181 in 2018 and if the numbers were broken into a gender split, they would show that the decline in boys teams was even more severe than it appears as the overall numbers were bolstered by the rise in the number of girls' teams.

So even if NZR comes away from Los Angeles with guarantees of a new competition and a new revenue sharing model that will deliver another $10 million a year of income, it won't be enough to patch up the enormous hole in the hull.

In fact, what it will most likely do is accentuate the demise of rugby as a mass participation sport as any influx of cash isn't destined to be spent on the grassroots but will instead mostly flow directly into the pockets of a handful of already well paid players.

And this is why it's so hard to see a bright future for rugby at the moment. NZR haven't once said in the last two years that their need for more money is being driven by a strategic goal to increase playing numbers and invest at the bottom end of the game.

The message has never wavered that they need more money to keep the best players in New Zealand – to fight off the advances of increasingly wealthy European and Japanese clubs.

Where things will end up is with New Zealand having a relatively tiny playing base – all of whom will be involved not because they necessarily love the game or believe in the values it fosters, but because from an early age they will have decided rugby is their meal ticket.

The more money that becomes available to the top players the more likely it is that those from a disadvantaged financial background will decide early in life that they want rugby to be their career.

New Zealand Rugby CEO Steve Tew. Photo / Photosport
New Zealand Rugby CEO Steve Tew. Photo / Photosport

And the reality for New Zealand is that no matter how much extra money floods into the game, they will never have as much as the Northern Hemisphere clubs and will never quite be able to retain all the talent they want.

Increasingly career planning will become less strategic and emotional for New Zealand's best players and the goal will be to maximise earnings with test caps a nice to have rather than must have.

The likes of Kieran Read and Dane Coles may be the last two great players to devote their entire career to the All Blacks.

Again, there are signs this is already happening. In the last 12 months the likes of Steven Luatua, Malakai Fekitoa and Lima Sopoaga have all said they are openly chasing money as they have extended families to support.

Even NZR chief executive Steve Tew has said the best he can hope for is that Beauden Barrett and Brodie Retallick sign for four years but with 12 months – in their prime – being spent in Japan.

That feels awfully like the beginning of the end – the grassroots is dying, and the top players can be more readily bought by offshore predators.

Maybe the All Blacks will be able to sustain their success if there are 60 per cent or maybe even 80 per cent less registered male players in future.

But maybe they won't because it's hard to find any reason to believe the All Blacks will be strengthened by New Zealand having fewer registered male players.

And it is even harder to believe that a world league of rugby or whatever nonsense is being conjured up in Los Angeles is going to do anything other than accelerate rugby's transition in New Zealand from being a mass participation sport to a mass spectator sport.