As club rugby kicks off in Auckland today, more than half of senior rugby players will identify as Pasifika, painting a vivid picture of the rapidly changing face of rugby in New Zealand's biggest city.

Last year, for the first time, Pacific Island players made up the majority of club players in Auckland at 55 per cent, a massive 9 per cent up from the last time the figures were collated in 2012.

In the corresponding time, European numbers have dropped 14.2 per cent.

Combined with a 10 per cent Māori player base, the latest statistics, supplied to the Weekend Herald by Auckland Rugby, means for every 100 players in Auckland, 65 will be Polynesian.

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Fewer than one in four identify as European and that number continues to drop. Asian players have risen slightly from 1 per cent to 2, and 9 per cent identified as "other" (possibly recent immigrants from South Africa, or those who did not want to be identified by ethnicity).

The numbers will not be surprising for those who stalk the sidelines of the city's fields in winter, or those who peruse the scores and scorers of Auckland's premier competition when they appear in Monday's paper.

But what seems so obvious really isn't. According to the 2013 Census statistics, Europeans still account for 60 per cent of Auckland's population, though this number will drop when the data is released from this year's Census. (It would also drop slightly if you took out the European-dominated local board areas falling within the North Harbour Rugby Union boundaries).

Pacific Islanders accounted for just 14.6 per cent of the city's population, which shows just how disproportionate their dominance of rugby participation numbers is. It also goes a long way to proving that the idea of "white flight" is more than perception, it is accepted reality.

"That's definitely a trend coming through," says former All Black Pita Alatini, who is director of rugby at Pakuranga, a club with a traditionally strong European player base which will field a Pasifika majority premier side this weekend.

Pakuranga's Pita Alatini says concepts are needed to keep European players in the game. Photo / Michael Craig
Pakuranga's Pita Alatini says concepts are needed to keep European players in the game. Photo / Michael Craig

"We're struggling to keep hold of a lot of kids through the school years, but the drop-off is definitely more noticeable in the [European] kids."

Another former All Black, legendary hardman centre Frank Bunce, has been involved with South Auckland club Manukau for 45 years.

"I don't know if we've got any Europeans left," he says.

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"It's about two-thirds Polynesian and one-third Māori."

That's not particularly surprising given the club is based in Māngere, the heart of multicultural South Auckland, but it's what he sees around Auckland's other clubs that has given him pause for thought.

"Grammar, University, Takapuna - they all have a lot more Islanders than they ever had," Bunce says.

"When I was playing you could play Grammar, University, College Rifles, Pakuranga and you'd be lucky if there were two or three Polynesians scattered between all those teams. Now they'd be the majority."

Perhaps the most important figure in the rise of Pasifika rugby, All Black in the 1970s and former Samoa coach, Bryan "Beegee" Williams, recalls a conversation he had with his grandson recently.

They were at a suburban ground watching a pre-season match involving his beloved Ponsonby, when his grandson, part-Samoan himself, said: "Look at the Manukau team: they're all Polys."

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"The Ponsonby team then ran out and I said to him, 'Look at the Ponsonby team they're all Polys'," Williams replied.

"It was very much a case of spot the white guy in either team."

Williams finds it easy to identify the reasons rugby is so popular with Pacific Islanders - the physicality, cheap access to the sport, genuine career opportunities and easily identifiable heroes - but is less certain as to why there has been such a precipitous drop-off with Europeans.

"Maybe at the grade and secondary school level kids are being put off rugby because they're having to compete with bigger Pacific Island boys."

Waitemata Rugby Football Club training at Waitemata Park. Photo / Michael Craig
Waitemata Rugby Football Club training at Waitemata Park. Photo / Michael Craig

It is worth asking: As traditional team sports look to bolster their ever-declining numbers in this age of instant digital entertainment and expanding recreational choices, is it time for rugby officials to directly market to the European player base that seems to be abandoning them?

"It makes sense," says Alatini.

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"We have programmes and initiatives to try to attract the Asian communities to the sport but perhaps the resource needs to go to maintaining Europeans, because we're losing them."

If New Zealand Rugby, which administers the game with a firm grip and sets strategies for the game they expect to be followed at both local and national level, are thinking about it, they're not letting on.

"We don't look at how we can market or recruit to rugby through that lens," says Steve Lancaster, NZ Rugby's departing head of provincial rugby.

"We look more at what people's lifestyles are and how we can appeal to their interests.

"We are aware of the changing makeup of rugby participation in Auckland. That's why we have a specific focus on the wider Auckland region."

That's a safe answer, and an understandable one. The issue of race and rugby is delicate. Too often it devolves into tired, discredited racial tropes. There is no suggestion that the rise and rise of Pasifika influence in Auckland rugby is a negative. Far from it.

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If a corollary of that rise, however, is a growing apathy towards rugby from Pākehā then at the very least it is a curiosity worth closer examination - and the first place to look is schools, the traditional supply line for clubs.

Clubs lose control of players during their secondary school years "and we're just not getting them back like we used to", Alatini says.

Invariably, the players never seen again are Pākehā. The reasons for this are manifold. One is Auckland's rapidly changing demographic.

Massey University's Professor Paul Spoonley produced a report into sports participation in schools and discovered rugby had dropped 29 per cent in greater Auckland - by any measure an alarming number.

He said when analysing the participation and demographics of rugby in New Zealand, two separate pictures emerge: a national picture and an Auckland one.

Spoonley's focus was the wave of Asian immigration and the effect that has had on rugby participation.

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Photo / Michael Craig
Photo / Michael Craig

In general terms, he said, Asian families tended to choose high-decile public education for their kids, the traditional feeding ground for rugby talent.

"They have no history, no concept of the sport," Spoonley said.

"They recognise rugby is important to New Zealand but have no engagement beyond the passive themselves. The physicality of the sport is off-putting, as many of the kids are light."

For Asian families, he said, the priority was academics, not sport, and particularly not organised team sports with it's time-consuming training.

"If you've got a school with a a 35-40 per cent Asian population, you're simply not going to have the same numbers playing rugby," he said.

"The pipeline will restrict consistently and that will quickly show through at senior level."

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Though that is an important factor in the general decline, it doesn't point to the specific decline in European numbers.

"We don't look at it in terms of ethnic lines but we certainly see a big drop-off in the high school years," Lancaster says.

"That's something we're concerned about. One of the factors is the performance pathway has got deeper into the school environment, so young men are realising early in their education whether they are in or out or that pathway."

The problem is, that pathway is being being determined so young - often while adolescents are at their most fragile emotionally as supercharged sets of hormones start to rage around their body - that they think, "If I'm not on that pathway, why bother?"

A well-placed source who was not authorised to speak by his school, said recruitment was a major factor. High-decile and independent schools that traditionally supplied many European players to clubs via their 1st XVs, now recruit Pasifika players on scholarships, who are fast-tracked ahead of the slower-maturing European players.

This suits the schools better because though a European player might mature enough physically to play in Year 12, a Polynesian player is ready at least a year earlier and the school gets potentially three years (and sometimes four) of service to the 1st XV, thus levelling out the troughs most schools go through as talent ebbs and flows.

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Which brings us on a crash-run up the guts towards one of the more fundamental, yet complicated, factors in the rise of Pasifika influence and possibly the decline in European participation: size.

Bergmann's Rule loosely states that the size of human populations tends to decrease with the mean temperature, but Polynesian populations don't just challenge this assertion, they trample over it with massive, earth-shaking frames.

To try to fit Polynesians, and particularly Samoan and Tongans into a neat ecogeographical model, it has been suggested that their size indicates that, as a seafaring people, they originally came from much colder climes.

What is not up for debate, however, is that Polynesian Pacific Islanders tend to be bigger than Europeans, and more importantly they get much bigger younger. An Ivy League university study discovered that weight gain increases 23 per cent more in a Samoan boy during the first year-and-a-quarter of his life compared to that of an average male American child.

In the contact football codes, size has obvious advantages.

The father of Haloti Ngata, one of the most decorated Polynesians in the NFL and a Super Bowl winner with the Baltimore Ravens, summed it up in a pithy line that appeared in USA Today five years ago.

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"Polynesian players are built for contact, built for football - big, strong, fast. We love contact. That's been the history of our people. The warrior spirit is within us."

Photo / Michael Craig
Photo / Michael Craig

The advantages of growing bigger and faster at a young age is obvious in a rugby context, yet paradoxically it is also the stick most often used to beat Polynesian players. The argument can be telescoped as: they get ahead on size at the expense of intangibles like heart and game sense.

It's faulty logic says former sports reporter and Pasifika publisher Innes Logan. Why, he asks, are Pacific Island rugby players made to feel guilty about their size in a way tall basketballers or fast bowlers never would be? Only the best are going to make it to the top, the ones with the heart and the smarts, regardless of size.

Polynesians lead many of the wrong socio-economic statistics, he says, including income and health, so why shouldn't they look to maximise one of the few inherent advantages they have?

No question, however, that size plays a role in the thinking of white parents, even with the introductions of weight-restricted games. Even Waitematā club secretary Hannah Hollands told the Herald she had serious concerns about her sons playing against athletes "twice their size".

"Physique does play a part. Definitely," says Alatini.

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"A lot of kids just don't know how to handle coming up against the big Pacific Island boys.

"It's a big factor for a lot of parents, especially with the awareness around concussion, safety and other injuries."

With rugby turning professional in 1996, it opened the gate to a career pathway and Pacific Island communities. Logan says league was always the preferred sport for the West Auckland Pasifika population he grew up among - partly because the clubs were far less hierarchical, partly because you could earn money - but 1996 altered that picture.

In Auckland - the world's largest Polynesian city - that pathway has become a beacon, says Beegee Williams, just as sports has become a source of hope to black Americans.

Again, that explains rugby's increasing popularity among Polynesians, but doesn't fully explain its declining popularity among white players.

For the future health of the national sport, the answers to this need to be fully explored and, says Alatini, acted upon.

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"We need concepts to keep them in the game. I'm 100 per cent for that."

State of the clubs

PONSONBY RC
Area: Auckland Central
Senior teams: 9

The longest-standing grassroots rugby club in Auckland, Ponsonby is steeped in history and success but its playing base has evolved dramatically fromthat of the early eras. Gallaher Shield champions on 33 occasions, the club stands in stark contrast to its gentrified location. Once a working-class stronghold, the suburb now houses affluent trendsetters in multimillion-dollar villas.

Bryan Williams. Photo / File
Bryan Williams. Photo / File

All Blacks legend Bryan Williams, a 58-year club stalwart, remembers a different time.

"When I first started playing for Ponsonby it was predominantly European with a sprinkling of other ethnicities," Williams says.

"I was one of only a few Pacific Islanders back then, but the trickle eventually became a flood."

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Williams and his grandson shared an organic discussion about ethnicity while watching Ponsonby in action at Waitemata recently. Watching the teams run out, it was a case of "spot the white boy".

These days Ponsonby's 23-man match day squad is overwhelmingly Pacific Island or Maori. Across the board in Auckland club rugby, this is a common theme.

"It just seems to be an evolution of what's happened in Auckland. This is now the biggest Polynesian city in the world. The game is tailor-made for the physiques of the Polynesian.

"The introduction of money is another powerful incentive. Like in American sport we've seen so many of those top African-American athletes say their sport got them out of the sort of life they wanted to get away from – crime and poverty. That's possibly an issue here, too."

WAITEMATA RFC
Area: West Auckland
Senior teams: 7

Over the past two decades, Waitemata has experienced the changing face of Auckland club rugby and welcomed an influx of Polynesian players. Further to that, they openly help many people from the Islands through the visa process to find work and accommodation, especially those who came to New Zealand on high school scholarships.

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Henderson, where the club is based, has strong working class and Dalmatian roots, but Waitemata's premier squad reflects the club's willingness to embrace the Polynesian talent.

Those within the club believe they lose the vast majority of their European playing base in the teenage bracket. Players who don't make the first or second XVs lose interest, with some schools in the area not having more teams to offer.

In 2016, Waitemata's under-13 side had a mix of European and Polynesian players and won their grade but many of that team, mostly Europeans, did not go on to play rugby the following year at school.

Many start high school weighing less than 50kg, yet are expected to walk into open grades against much bigger, often fully-grown, Pacific Island athletes, said club secretary Hannah Hollands, who is just one of many concerned mothers when it comes to boys clashing with athletes frequently twice their size.

MANUKAU ROVERS RFC
Area: South Auckland
Senior teams: 6

Māngere is the heart of South Auckland, the heart of the city's Polynesian communities and home to Manukau Rovers. Pacific Islanders represent 60 per cent of the Manukau area, with 40 per cent overall born overseas.

It is therefore no surprise when club president Frank Bunce, the former All Black midfielder, says Polynesian players make up the entirety of the premier squad. About one-third are Māori but, according to Bunce, this group is fast shrinking, with Tongans now dominating.

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Former All Black Frank Bunce.
Former All Black Frank Bunce.

"Māori have all but disappeared," he says. "They're playing a lot of league but they've disappeared from the club rugby scene. It's obvious there are a lot more Tongans around than any other Pacific Island nations.

With such a strong Polynesian influence Manukau doesn't tend to attract many from outside its catchment. Bunce attributes the drop-off in Māori to schoolboy rugby, and the fact players can't join a club team until they are 18. Many of those who leave school early therefore opt for league.

"You can't lose someone at 13 and try and get them back at 20. Not without jumping through hoops."

PAKURANGA UNITED RC
Area: East Auckland
Senior teams: 7

East Auckland is one of the fastest growing regions in the country but it is not considered a rugby stronghold. In 2013, the Howick local board area population, which includes Pakuranga (Howick was the original name of the rugby club until changing to Pakuranga in 1965), was split into 55 per cent European, 39 per cent Asian and just 5 per cent each for Māori and Pacific Island.

It was home to 42 mainly high-decile schools and had a high household median income ($84,500).

These are not demographics you normally associate with rugby hotbeds yet Pakuranga United's website announces them as the biggest and fastest growing rugby club in Auckland. They have recent success too, winning the prized Gallaher Shield for the first time in 2013.

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Next week, when the premier team runs out, despite representing an area that is overwhelmingly European and Asian, more than half the line-up will be Polynesian, says director of rugby Pita Alatini.

The Tongan-born former All Black is in his sixth year with the club and says Pakuranga was historically a club that was majority white, but that has changed rapidly in recent years.

"We've seen more and more Polynesian families come into the club," he says.

One of the factors behind the change, he believes, is having more people of Pasifika heritage, like himself, in positions of influence in clubs.

"It does help. They [Polynesians] see a connection. It's more approachable for the kids coming through."