Today the Weekend Herald kicks off a new series looking at rugby and its place in our national psyche. Although top level rugby is humming ahead of the British & Irish Lions tour, Dylan Cleaver finds the state of the game at lower levels has become a cause of concern.

CHAPTER 1. A game for all NZers?

"There can be no [country] in which a game has had a more deep-seated impact in shaping the lifestyle and thought patterns of the inhabitants than the game of rugby in New Zealand.

- Graham Mourie, "Captain" (1982)

Worshippers will come from all points over the next month, cramming creaking cathedrals from north to south and back again with lipstick red and funereal black.

It will look impressive: confirmation that the country's first and perhaps only enduring love is the pursuit of the oval ball. Assessing the continuing cachet of rugby in the midst of a Lions tour, however, would be like gauging the pull of the Catholic Church based on a Good Friday congregation.

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The colourful masses will paint an incomplete picture.

Whereas you once could argue that New Zealanders loved the game unconditionally,
now it's, well, complicated.

The All Blacks dominance is still impressive - the historic 77 per cent win ratio is phenomenal and, possibly, unprecedented - but the challenges of professionalism in a small market, rapidly changing demographics and a digitised world full of entertainment options are taxing rugby's pre-eminence as never before.

The All Blacks are by design the top of the pyramid. The bedrock, the foundations for their success, are said to be laid from junior to school to club to NPC to Super Rugby. The old argument reigned that should any of those building blocks falter, the team at the top - the All Blacks - would crumble too.

But rugby seems not only to buck this convention, but flip it on its head. The sport is almost absurdly top heavy. The All Blacks, some say, essentially pay for the game's survival, so the paradigm would be more accurately stated as: if the All Blacks crumble, so too will everything below. A catastrophic trickle-down effect, if you like.

Yet, already, we have dissent.

"You started this conversation by suggesting the All Blacks pay for rugby. They don't pay for shit," says Rob Nichol, the rarely animated head of the Rugby Players' Association.

"This is a massive mistake rugby has made. They say the All Blacks fund it. They don't. It's the people who fund it: it's the people who choose to buy the sponsors' products, who choose to buy a broadcast subscription, who choose to go along to the game. The community funds the game, make no bones about that."

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A game of the people, by the people, for the people, then?

"The All Blacks don't fund rugby. It's ridiculous and it makes me angry where I hear it because it's disrespectful to the community."

Ignoring the potential circularity of the who-pay-for-rugby debate, the "community's" continuing role in rugby is pivotal to the sport's future and can no longer be taken for granted. Over the next week you will hear from some of the foremost thinkers on the game as they to try to determine where the national sport sits in the national consciousness in 2017.

Fans and suppporters in the crowd. Photo / Photosport
Fans and suppporters in the crowd. Photo / Photosport

But perhaps the clearest indication comes from a piece of research commissioned independently for a large sporting organisation, who shared it with the Herald.
The research, by sport and entertainment group Gemba, highlighted an existential crisis for traditional sports, including rugby, and their administrators.

Put bluntly: the younger the generation, the less passion there is about sport. There was nothing subtle about the decline between 2011-14, with metrics measuring passion, participation and consumption all trending down (with a slight in 2015, no doubt off the back of the cricket and rugby world cups).

At the same time, the passion for entertainment has increased. Whereas the ratio of passion for entertainment to passion for sport is 2:1 for those 45 and older, it jumps to 3:1 for the younger generations and is increasing.

The news is better for rugby. Of those who still consider themselves fans or fanatics, rugby is streets ahead of other New Zealand sports (46 per cent as opposed to league and cricket's 36 per cent), and is easily the most "consumed" sport (30 per cent compared to 24 for the next best, cricket).

Martin Snedden, whose job was once to run a successful Rugby World Cup, is tasked with trying to find new ways of engaging people with cricket. He said the numbers gave those in charge of traditional sports two choices: "We either realise we're competing against other forms of entertainment and do that, or we come to the realisation that sport must be entertainment."

Although many may already consider sport part of the entertainment sector, purists would still baulk at the idea.

"To survive you have to adapt your sport to the point where it is entertainment," Snedden says. "Obviously you try to retain core elements of it but in essence the customer, who in the end is the only thing that matters, wants to be entertained."

Is rugby ready for such a quantum change in thinking, or has it already started to subtly shift the dial?

Greg McGee once trialled for the All Blacks. He doubled down by becoming the ghost writer for the Richie McCaw, arguably the greatest player in the code's history.

He also wrote a fantastically angry play, Foreskin's Lament, that was recently refitted for the modern era. That play and his staunch no-tour stance in 1981 led McGee to be labelled anti-rugby, a convenient tag applied to most New Zealanders of the day who didn't prescribe to the narrow sport-and-politics-don't-mix world view.

"That's what Foreskin's Lament was, an expose not so much of rugby, but of mainstream New Zealand," he says. "I always felt rugby was a reflection of mainstream New Zealand. If there were big elements of misogyny and racism in rugby, there was a fair bet that was happening in New Zealand.

"New Zealand is now a far more diverse, more challenging place and I think rugby reflects that. Both the country and the sport are probably more healthy because of it."

Confirmation of that, he felt, came during the Sonny Bill Williams collar story, where the convert to Islam chose not to wear one of the Blues' sponsors, BNZ, because of his belief that money-lenders who charge interest are exploitative.

McGee described the national body's handling of the issue, where it sought compromise while respecting Williams' Muslim beliefs, as heartening and "pitch perfect" - in stark contrast to much of the commentary directed at the polarising player.

"The old amateur game was never this egalitarian paradise it was made out to be," he says. "Anyone with a difference in their appearance or belief was totally excluded. It was the farthest thing from a meritocracy. In those days, we would never have had a dreadlocked Samoan in the team, let alone as All Black captain.

Kieran Read poses with fans after the All Blacks and Argentina Rugby Championship test match at Waikato Stadium in Hamilton. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Kieran Read poses with fans after the All Blacks and Argentina Rugby Championship test match at Waikato Stadium in Hamilton. Photo / Jason Oxenham

"Professional rugby has galloped away from grassroots and is more or less part of the entertainment matrix now. Again, rugby is reflecting what is going on in New Zealand. To me, it's never been a leader. In some respects rugby clubs remain the glue that binds communities but it has never been a leader of societal change."

Whether it should be a leader - and even that is a nebulous term - or not is an interesting concept.

Nichol believes rugby can provide examples of leadership but should never be conceited enough to assume it can lead by right.

"Rugby can't be arrogant enough to think it's a dominant part of our society or that it leads New Zealand culturally. That's not true. But rugby can provide an example and do lots of really positive stuff," he says. "Whether that's around diversity, the education of young players, the attitudes towards women; if we do all of that really well, that's a good thing."

Louisa Wall, an ex-Black Fern who is now an Opposition MP and strident advocate for diversity, believes rugby has "no choice" but to lead if it wants to remain a touchstone.
Wall says the sport remains the "national religion", but that implies a blind faith and the research highlighted in this story indicates it is waning.

"I don't think rugby has a choice but to lead any more because the brands they associate with through sponsorship really care."

Wall cited a speech made by ASB CEO Barbara Chapman at last year's gala rugby awards, where she used well-chosen words to wield a big stick to rugby administrators. It was the sort of message that would once have been dismissed as PC madness in rugby's cloistered power structure, but can no longer be ignored.

"As a New Zealander, and a woman, I share with you the joys and highlights of the game but despair at the controversy which can engulf the sport we all love," said Chapman. "In many ways, rugby is a microcosm of New Zealand society; so much good and positive work is done by the rugby community and yet, just like New Zealand society as a whole, there is always more work to be done around building diversity and ensuring people from all backgrounds feel included and valued."

Wall believes those 85 words, where Chapman subtly referenced not only the exhaustively documented scandals around the Aaron Smith toilet liaison and the Chiefs' end-of-season party but also rugby's historic reluctance to embrace people deemed to be different, will act as a watershed moment for the sport.

"Global corporate brands have to be inclusive and embrace diversity so if the Rugby Union is going to be part of that family of sponsors, they are going to have to change," she says. "The sponsors can't align themselves with brands that are fundamentally against what they stand for. Discrimination is not cool. Inequality is not cool."

NZ Rugby appointed a respect and responsibility project manager in the wake of the Chiefs' incident, when a tone-deaf investigation into the players' behaviour appeared, from the outside at least, to shovel the blame on to Scarlette, the stripper who had been hired by the team to perform for them.

It is not the only step New Zealand Rugby has taken to be proactive. After a century-and-a-quarter, the boardroom table will welcome a woman, ex-Black Fern Farah Palmer, and the national body also signed an accord to encourage diversity.

Former Black Ferns captain Farah Palme. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Former Black Ferns captain Farah Palme. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The more open approach literally started from the bootstraps up, with Super Rugby players this year wearing brightly coloured laces during one round to encourage and promote diversity.

It is going to take more than that, however, suddenly to turn many rugby clubrooms into welcoming places for women, for some ethnic minorities and for the LBGTIQ community. Even with the boom of Pasifika players and their increasing cultural reach into our professional and schoolboy teams, rugby is still seen by many as a game run by conservative white men.

"I don't think they know how to [embrace those communties] and this is why you need diversity on the board," Wall says. "That's in its simplest form why you have policies that ensure you are representative of the general public.

"We haven't represented our player base for a long time. Look at the Maori and Pasifika component of our player base and that's not reflected on the board and neither are women. Women represent about 15 per cent of their player base so while Farah [Palmer] is the beginning, they can't possibly think she's the end."

In truth, rugby's ability to engage with new and more diverse communities is just one of myriad challenges.

Although it is up to rugby's varied administrations from club to country to present a friendlier face to all New Zealanders, there are events beyond its control that could be having a debilitating effect.

Geoff Moon, the coach of last year's secondary schoolboy kings, Mt Albert Grammar, summed up the biggest problem facing New Zealand rugby in a word: poverty.

"The biggest threat to the health of the game is that life in New Zealand, particularly in Auckland, is getting tougher," says Moon, who has also worked in decile-one and -two South Auckland schools De La Salle College and Aorere College. "Too many people are living below the poverty line. There're too many young men having to work for extended families and look after more than they should, too young. I see a changing demographic and I see a lot more players for whom life has got too tough once they walk out these gates.

"They're forced into doing stuff that should be before their years. It impacts their ability to play and train."

Wayne
Wayne "Buck" Shelford. Photo / Garry Brandon

On the North Shore of Auckland Wayne Shelford, the straight-talking former All Black legend, has seen playing numbers fall off the cliff. He believes the union made some fundamental mistakes in how it structured the game when it went professional in 1996 but he, too, highlights the challenges of modern metropolitan life.

"My club, North Shore, when I was playing, had 12 senior teams, now we have three. So where are all the kids going? Where are all the 23- to 30-year-olds going?

"To live in Auckland costs a fortune. To buy a house costs a fortune. To rent costs a fortune. Everybody is trying to make money just to live here. To travel in traffic takes time and time is money. It makes it a lot harder," Shelford says. "A lot of people are giving the game away earlier because it's about working and making sure you don't get hurt so you can keep working."

And, without wanting to sound fatalistic, there is something even deeper than that, which the Gemba research lays out in plain sight: it's just so much easier not to play rugby in today's world.

There are a multitude of recreation options that are not dependant on set-in-stone training windows and Saturday afternoon time-slots. It is more acceptable at schools to play other sports and indulge in other activities, so the peer-pressure element is not as strong. More and more clubs are dying or amalgamating and the ones that remain are now no longer the focal points of many communities.

These are not challenges unique to rugby. Not by any stretch. But by virtue of the fact it has had, as Mourie wrote, such a "deep-seated impact in shaping the lifestyle and thought patterns of the inhabitants of [New Zealand]", its response to these very modern challenges will determine whether it continues to thrive or merely survives.

Authors note: The original version of this story stated that only about 8 per cent of adult New Zealanders considered themselves passionate about sport. This was a misinterpretation of the data. That figure was the average amount of New Zealanders passionate about the individual sports recorded in the survey.