Anecdotal evidence has long suggested Auckland rugby is losing young Pakeha players at secondary school. But the actual figures might surprise all followers of the game.
Dylan Cleaver reports today that Europeans comprise only one in four players in Auckland senior club rugby. The great Sir Bryan Williams suspects the ratio of Pakeha to Polynesians is even higher in the premier club competition. Is this a problem?
It is for the more slightly built players who possess talent and enthusiasm but find the physical demands of the game, even in schools nowadays, to be against them. Many of them will be late developers who would be able to stand up to the impact with more heavily built Polynesian players later in their teens if they were able to continue playing.
But our report suggests many do not continue. They perhaps heed the concerns of parents and the risks of serious head injury that have become much better known in the past year or two. Or they simply find they do not enjoy collisions with such a weight disadvantage.
Whatever the reasons — and they will apply to lighter players of any ethnicity — rugby ought to be concerned. Junior rugby grades players by weight and that continues in secondary school competitions and even for older players. But we are told weight-restricted teams do not have the same appeal as open-grade teams for players in schools or for the schools. With limited coaching and other resources, Auckland schools put their effort into the open grades and that is where promising players, no matter how light they are, want to be.
Increasingly, rugby is not a game for light players. If they are good enough to reach the professional levels they will be advised and helped to "bulk up". The weight of players in all positions has steadily increased through the years. Undoubtedly this is part of the Polynesian influence on the game, not just in Auckland but perhaps most pronounced here. As the world's largest Polynesian city this should be expected, and be a point of pride.
The Pacific Island cultures in Auckland are part of the city's character. They are our rugby players and they are superb. Let British commentators accuse New Zealand of "poaching" from the Pacific; Auckland is part of the Pacific. A good proportion of its population straddles the city and the islands, as is most evident when an island nation plays rugby or league in Auckland.
As the national game, rugby has seldom taken much notice of the ethnicity of its players. At times All Black teams have contained equal numbers of Maori, Pakeha and Pacific Polynesians and nothing has been made of it. No other national institution can boast the same balance. Rugby has usually been a fine example of New Zealand's racial harmony, which was why the compromises it made to play with South Africa in the apartheid era were so unfortunate.
Today, Maori as well as Pakeha are heavily outnumbered by Pacific Polynesians in Auckland rugby and, through the "export" of Auckland secondary school talent, in other parts of the country and in Australian rugby. Is this a problem? Not for the game. It is faster, harder, stronger for the Pacific influence, a better spectacle than it has ever been.
It is more robust and risky, especially for smaller players, but that is the nature of the game. It used to accommodate players of all sizes. Not now.