Auckland Rugby is celebrating a healthy rise in club team numbers, especially at junior level which has enjoyed a 10 per cent growth on 2019 pre-Covid levels.
This year there are 69 more junior club teams compared with 2019, with 12 new school teams - a 12 per cent increase on 2019.
Auckland senior club levels remain steady.
Auckland's achievement in building junior and youth numbers despite the Covid disruption of last season, which saw far fewer games played, with some clubs playing none, is a huge boost as New Zealand Rugby opens its arms to an injection of private equity cash to help fix the community game which it insists is in crisis.
And the news over the bridge is almost as heartening, with North Harbour's junior numbers also increasing. This year there are 31 more junior club teams competing compared with two years ago – an increase of 8.5 per cent.
This year there are 19 more youth teams at Harbour when compared with last year and there are four more senior club teams when compared with 2020 (48 compared with 44 previously).
The numbers for Counties Manukau are steadier, with a 2 per cent increase at junior level and much healthier increase at secondary school level (18 per cent, albeit from a lower base – 39 teams when compared with 33).
Papakura High School is one big success story for Counties. Jerome Kaino's former school (which he attended before accepting a scholarship to St Kents) fielded no rugby teams last year. This year it has two.
However, there are four fewer senior club teams at the province.
For Auckland Rugby chief executive Jarrod Bear, the increases at New Zealand's largest province have come after a lot of hard work from his staff and the delivery of a $200,000 grant to clubs last year during what he described as a "very challenging environment".
"Our clubs have all made it through to the start line this year and have worked closely alongside our club rugby team to ensure a great result for rugby right across our community," Bear said.
"To be able to share this news in the same week as announcing seven players in the New Zealand U20s shows that Auckland Rugby is focused on providing meaningful opportunities at all levels."
Auckland club rugby manager Joe Blundell said the increase in numbers of girls-only, non-contact and weight-grade teams helped make the game more accessible.
There were 17 more junior girls' teams, an increase of 52 per cent on 2019.
But Bear said challenges remain.
"Coming out of lockdown last year, our board provided clear directive that we needed to be delivering 2019 participation numbers. This is the important base of our game and we need to innovate to ensure we have more people involved in our game. It feels great to say the team has achieved that and more.
"We are all keenly aware innovation and growing our community game is never complete, but to be where we are at this stage of the season is a real show of strength for Auckland Rugby, club staff and valuable volunteers that help facilitate 10,000 games of rugby each year for our 22,000 participants."
Auckland's and Counties-Manukau's junior seasons kick off on Saturday, with Harbour's juniors starting last weekend.