Last night, Ma'a Nonu was his bruising physical self for the Blues at Eden Park. Today, his cousin's daughter played a different brand of non-contact rugby at Silverdale.

Rebekkah Nonu, aged 8, ran in several tries for Glenfield Rugby Club in a Rippa Rugby Festival match where the only physical contact is ripping the flag from the belt of the ball carrier.

North Harbour Rugby created a first last night when the festival for boys kicked off, followed by a grade for girls today.

The move has been initiated to try to arrest an alarming decline in playing numbers, particularly among teenage boys and is the first of its kind in New Zealand.

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Rebekkah Nonu in action in the non-contact ripper rugby festival at the Silverdale Rugby Club. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Rebekkah Nonu in action in the non-contact ripper rugby festival at the Silverdale Rugby Club. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Rebekkah's father, Jeremiah Nonu, said the non-contact grade for boys and girls is a good thing for youth to be participating in.

"A lot of kids will be missing out on sport because parents will be afraid of the contact," said Nonu, adding the large turnout at the festival was great for rugby.

Nonu said he definitely saw the benefit of young children playing non-contact sport, saying their brains were still developing.

"I'm old school. We were thrust on to the field at 4, thrashing each other, but there has to be benefits to it (non-contact sport). It's about participation," said Nonu, who coaches American football, saying his daughter has seen the big hits and cringes.

Other parent's at the festival endorsed the new non-contact era for rugby.

Drisana Tonga said it was nice to watch her 7-year old daughter Kordelia Pahulu, playing non-contact rugby.

Kordelia Pahulu, aged 7, from the Glenfield Rugby Club with her mum Drisana Tonga. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Kordelia Pahulu, aged 7, from the Glenfield Rugby Club with her mum Drisana Tonga. Photo / Jason Oxenham

"It's her first ever game. She was so excited to get out on the field," Tonga said.

As for Kordelia, she liked the idea of no contact, saying her favourite part was trying to rip the flag off the ball carrier.

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Another parent, Kylie Francis, also liked the concept of non-contact rugby for her 13-year-old daughter, Brooke Lucas, who plays for the Mahurangi Rugby Club.

"It's a sport where (kids) get a lot of fitness. It's a sport that historically they don't typically play and are not scared of coming to play and getting the big hits and hurt," she said.

Francis said compromise was needed between a bit of aggression without getting hurt from big tackles and full-on concussions, saying hockey and netball were rougher than non-contact rugby.

Brooke said non-contact rugby was really fun, loved playing with her friends and said it was easier than playing tackle rugby.

"You don't get hurt as much," said Brooke, who also plays netball and finds it more physical at times.

Winger Brooke Lucas, aged 13, from the Mahurangi Rugby Club with her mum Kylie Francis. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Winger Brooke Lucas, aged 13, from the Mahurangi Rugby Club with her mum Kylie Francis. Photo / Jason Oxenham

The move to non-contact rugby for boys and girls coincides with the launch of a Herald series on the science behind sports-related head injuries, in which leading US experts have called for children under 12 to be banned from playing contact sport because of the risk of brain injury in later life.

North Harbour Rugby's Bill Wigglesworth, whose job is to grow engagement and participation in the sport, said the new grade was about providing rugby opportunities to new to the game players and existing players who were not ready for the increasing physicality of tackle rugby.

"We've made quite a few changes this season to make sure we're providing quality experiences to young kids. We're focusing on creating rugby environments that are all about a climate of development, fun and put young people at the centre of their rugby experience," he said.

"There's a growing demand to provide junior boys with different ways to play the game and it's been really well received by our community."

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Harbour hit the headlines earlier this year when they announced they were ending representative programmes for kids under 14. The feedback and research had told them that kids who didn't make rep teams at a young age felt disillusioned and were abandoning the sport altogether.

Harbour CEO David Gibson said the union received a lot of positive responses, though some parents had indicated they would move their talented kids to another union.

New Zealand Rugby has welcomed the move to start a non-contact grade.

"Our goal is for as many kids as possible to have a positive rugby experience and we want to encourage a lifelong love of the game. This is a fantastic new way for boys to play rugby and we really support North Harbour Rugby's efforts," said NZR's Steve Lancaster.

"We know to keep young people engaged in our sport we need to be flexible, try new things and deliver experiences that kids want, and that includes opportunities to play non-contact versions of rugby for as long as they wish."

The new boys' grade came on the back of the success of North Harbour Rugby's equivalent grade for young females, which has seen a girls-only non-contact club grade available since 2016.

North Harbour was now considered one of the fastest growing regions for women's rugby in New Zealand and in the 2019 season there were 51 Rippa Rugby and QuickRip girls' teams in action.