Rugby's battle for the hearts and minds of New Zealanders is being fought on many fronts.

On the one hand, there are small, public victories. The All Blacks are actually still ranked No1 in the world. A player such as Ngani Laumape, who could double the money he earns by going to Europe, decides to stay here. Our men's and women's sevens sides win a tournament in Australia playing stunning rugby.

On the other, there are the massive challenges posed at the top level by the golden lure of staggering salaries, which, as Richie McCaw has pointed out, New Zealand can really only counter by offering "the pretty big carrot" of wearing the All Black jersey.

Away from the headlines, there are problems that with time have become just as threatening as an elite player exodus.


Secondary school numbers for boys have steadily declined, now 4000 fewer than the 31,000 who were playing in 2012. Sport New Zealand statistics show the greatest drop off in playing sport of any kind, including rugby, happens between the ages of 15 and 17.

And as any club administrator will tell you, lose someone then, and you've probably lost them for life.

As the 24th season of professional rugby is about to begin there are powerful hints that rugby is heading down the path of American football, where high schools, and, in their case, universities, provide a minuscule number of gifted athletes who will play as professionals. The majority of the high school and college players who don't turn professional retire in their early 20s.

Why should New Zealand rugby even bother to try to make us different from the US?

For a start because in heartland New Zealand, rugby clubs have, in many small towns, been as much of a social centre as a War Memorial Hall.

When New Zealand farmers were riding high on massive wool prices in the 1950s and early 1960s, and rugby was basically alone as a winter sport for Kiwi males, a truckload of club houses were built. Many of them have since morphed into multi-sport centres.

And participating in sport, as a Sport New Zealand survey of 87,042 New Zealanders in 2017 revealed, is a good thing, not only physically, but also mentally.

Of those in the survey who played less than 30 minutes of sport a week, or no sport at all, 51 per cent rated their life "very happy". Of the people involved in sport for 2-hours a week or more, 70 per cent landed in the "very happy" category.


Specifically for rugby, there are many paths they could head down to keep the amateur side going.

Potentially one of the most important is suggested by former All Blacks coach John Hart. The use of sevens as a game for all players, not just the increasingly big and powerful who dominate the 15s game.

"The physicality and complexity of 15s at the higher levels," he says, "mean that if we really want participation, we need to look at both touch and sevens, games where smaller kids can grow skills and vision.

"There's no reason why an amateur player couldn't play for a sevens team at a club, maybe in a pool of teams, where they'd play two games in an afternoon.

"If a player then wanted to pursue higher levels, whether at sevens or 15s, they'd start with an understanding of the basics, and have a fitness base."

You don't have to look far for examples of gifted rugby players who have sprung from a touch background. Tyla Nathan-Wong is now a 24-year-old star of the Black Ferns. As a 16-year-old, she was playing touch football for the New Zealand women's senior team. Selling a sport such as touch that doesn't involve collisions, so has a tiny risk of concussion, feels a sensible 21st century way to increase participation at rugby clubs.

Tyla Nathan-Wong, a 24-year-old star of the Black Ferns, came from a touch background. Photo / Photosport
Tyla Nathan-Wong, a 24-year-old star of the Black Ferns, came from a touch background. Photo / Photosport

As for winning fans, there are other lessons to be learned from the Black Ferns, too.

As they've exploded on to the sporting stage, they've brought with them an exuberance that New Zealand men, whether they're All Blacks or not, spend a lot of their lives suppressing.

Can you picture an All Black yelling "Hi Mum and Dad" and thrusting a player of the tournament trophy at a camera the way the stunningly talented Michaela Blyde did in Sydney? No, neither can I. But wasn't it great?

One of a tiny number of sports teenagers are watching in increasing numbers is the NBA.

Whether it's the Steven Adams phenomenon, or the fact many of the American stars seem to draw their interview style from the world of rap and hip hop, a chord is struck with younger fans in New Zealand. They feel, as a local television executive explained last week, that they know the players as people.

Of course no All Black should start imitating what comes naturally and feels real from an inner city African-American. But the more our All Blacks can be persuaded that being interviewed is not an imposition, but a way to help draw more kids into a sport the player himself presumably loves, the better for the game.

Phil Gifford joins Simon Barnett on the new Newstalk ZB Afternoons show from June.