In the third of three-part series looking at the future of rugby in a post-pandemic world, we look at the shape of the sport at community level. Read the first part of the series here and part two here .
In April, with the light at the end of rugby's tunnel still a speck on the horizon, Auckland Rugby announced a small rescue package for its clubs. Within the rugby community, the news – which came with a headline-making the union appear like white knights – was greeted with a mixture of gratitude, cynicism and, strangely perhaps, even disappointment.
The reason for gratitude was obvious: that the ARU was opening its fat wallet (courtesy of deep reserves largely procured through its beneficiary status at Eden Park) to put cash where it was most needed.
The cynicism was also easy to understand: the very existence of the union was not just to produce representative teams, but to act in the best interest of its constituents – the clubs. It should have been seen less as a rescue and more of a moral duty.
It's the disappointment, however, that warrants closest attention as rugby moves into a post-pandemic world. There are many who believe that too many clubs have lost sight of what their role is, have lived beyond their means for far too long and have been far too willing to put their hands out, not up.
It is, in essence, a debate about what club and community sport should look like and what its role in the sport's ecosystem is.
"There is an unspoken risk that reform of sport at the community level may be seen as a necessity to ensure the viability of the elite game," says Gordon Noble-Campbell, chairman of New Zealand's Amateur Sport Association. "To mitigate this risk, national sport administrators must spend as much time listening to the diverse needs of their community participants – without whose support their game will diminish, regardless of any level of structural re-engineering – as they are looking at how to repair the holes in their corporate balance sheets."
Perhaps Noble-Campbell saw what was coming when he made that statement. NZ Rugby has shed 50 per cent of its staff as revenues tumble due to the impact of Covid-19, and those working on community development have been hit hardest.
This is in part an argument about where you input the money. There is a growing school of thought that it should not be the responsibility of the All Blacks to effectively fund all levels of the game. The NBA and the MLB don't fund community baseball and basketball across the USA, so why do our flagship teams carry that burden here?
(There are several counter-arguments to this rather capitalist argument, namely that the American model is not one to covet. The percentage of adults playing community sport in the USA is small and that has a wider effect on sectors such as physical and mental health.)
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For clarity's sake, when we are discussing community rugby we are talking about club rugby, school rugby and amateur representative rugby, including the Heartland Championship. All have a rich history and strong ties that bind, but they all have problems that need to be solved if rugby is going to remain a sport that has a greater role to play beyond a supply chain of talent for professional franchises.
The issues around schools rugby are manifold and, at a performance and pathways level, have been discussed at length elsewhere. The issues of moneyed schools "buying" in talent and an increasing distortion of the ethos of a level playing field are all crucial to the health of secondary schools rugby, but largely academic for community rugby.
The importance of schools rugby to community is simple. For the game to thrive, schools need to encourage participation and to have nurtured a love of the game so strong that boys and girls will continue to play through school and join a club upon leaving.
This fundamental connection has fractured alarmingly over a relatively short space of time.
In many ways, the rise in popularity of the girls' game has only masked the precipitous fall of rugby's popularity among boys.
So dire were projections, New Zealand Rugby launched a review of schools rugby in 2018.
Some of the language was ugly, and it cannot have been comfortable putting it in front of the board.
"The numbers of boys playing the game at secondary school is trending downwards at an alarming rate," the report's authors wrote, "especially considering that the overall secondary school roll has been steadily increasing in recent years. Decreasing numbers of players leads to fewer teams and problems in forming meaningful, viable competitions."
Figures showed that over the five-year period to 2018, the number of secondary school rugby teams had dropped in Auckland by 20 per cent, despite a sharp rise in girls' teams.
In North Harbour figures were even harder to digest, with numbers of teams dropping by more than 30 per cent. Some schools, like blue-collar Glenfield College, were struggling to muster a single team.
Said a former NZR employee: "There is the genuine risk that rugby becomes like gridiron: one large squad per school and that's about it. Don't be fooled by growth at girls or sevens level. Boys are playing less and dropping out more. We are getting thumped by basketball, which is cooler, and football with its simple rules and the growth of [artificial] turfs."
Both are also safer; a significant point.
NZR appointed a fulltime employee to try to put structures around secondary school rugby that protect both performance and participation outcomes, but the fundamental problems remain that school rugby remains the property of the schools, and as has been demonstrated by the uproar created when Rob Waddell's Sports Collective muscled in on the school sport scene, principals do not take kindly to being told how to manage their sport.
Rugby in the school space will remain as it did pre-coronavirus: an area of great pride and passion, but also a complex and increasingly vexing part of rugby's fabric.
On Wednesday clubs were given the go-ahead by NZ Rugby to start preparing to return to play. There is a genuine fear that in many unions the season could be shambolic, with even some traditionally strong clubs struggling to field viable teams.
That is a short-term fear; the long term is almost as frightening.
"Too many clubs still see themselves as a crucial part of the performance pathway and that is costing them and the sport itself," said a source who works in rugby's professional sphere now after a long background in community sport.
He was not authorised to speak on the record, but remains passionate and critical when it comes to the community sector.
"The amount of money some clubs are prepared to spend to win titles – across a number of sports, not just rugby – is ridiculous. If you're spending six-figure sums on staff, coaches and players to try to win a Gallaher Shield or Jubilee Cup, you've got your priorities all wrong."
The source's frustration stemmed from his belief that clubs had failed to see what was in front of their eyes: that they were no longer part of the "pathway". Instead of embracing that, they were spending to create high-performance environments that are, frankly, pointless in the current contracting environment.
"The club spend has gone in all the wrong places. If clubs had invested as much in facilities, food and entertainment as they had on trying to win trophies they would be far healthier. Make the club a welcoming, inclusive part of the community – somewhere that not just the premier players and families want to part of."
The instruction is that clubs should still try to win titles like Auckland's storied Gallaher Shield, but they should do it the right way. What the "right way" looks like is open to interpretation but according to a former employee of NZR, clubs must "foster deep community connections and provide direct links down to schools, if given proper support and resource, and upwards to local NPC team."
Look local, stay local.
The creation of Super Rugby squeezed club footy off the performance pathway but it didn't make it immediately unfashionable. There was, and possibly still is in some areas, tremendous goodwill and spirit in this sector, but it can no longer be taken for granted.
Clubs will need to return to a golden age of volunteering because they're simply not going to have the money to keep spending on performance.
The NZASA estimates that about 25 per cent of club funding comes from gaming grants. Gaming grants and subscriptions combine to represent more than half of club revenues.
While this is initially problematic, Maori public health agency Hāpai Te Hauora sees an opportunity to break a harmful cycle.
"While we empathise with our community sports organisations and the limited funding sources which have been available historically, we believe that the current climate signals the potential for positive change and [for] grassroots sport and recreation to liberate themselves from gambling funding," says Hāpai Te Hauora CEO Seleh Hart. "Most community sports organisations would not choose to receive funding which is derived from activities which harm the community – like gambling – but there have been few alternatives available to them until now."
Major grant-funders have suspended consideration of applications in the wake of Covid-19. Rugby clubs have suspended operations, so memberships will be down or in jeopardy of non-renewal.
Fewer members means less take at the bar, which for decades has proved to be the most cost-effective revenue tap to pour (though Saturday night clubrooms are generally a pitiful sight now, especially in Auckland according to many club stalwarts).
Noble-Campbell noted that while sponsorship wasn't a huge part of most community clubs' revenue, there would still be pressure on that sector, too.
"Local community businesses may not have the financial resources to maintain their support given their own loss of revenue," he said.
Most of the provincial unions, outside of Auckland, do not have the funds to prop up clubs.
And while the sums are much smaller, the stakes are just as high for the viable, continued existence of club rugby.
School rugby will survive and has the potential to thrive. Some clubs may retrench, merge and disappear, but it will continue. It is difficult to be so optimistic with the Heartland Championship.
The current model is dead and buried – but it's also the easiest sector to patch up.
It was the first to cancel its tournament this year and in doing so saved New Zealand Rugby close to $20 million.
That fact alone should give pause for thought: $20m is a lot of money for an amateur competition.
The tournament should have low overheads but that is not the case. Take air travel and much of the accommodation out of the equation – yes, the days of the epic bus trip are back – and the Heartland Championship becomes viable again.
Apart from the final, there will be no expensive inter-island travel.
It is not out of the question that the semi-professional national provincial championship will retrench and some unions, particularly those struggling both competitively and financially, will "opt" into Heartland instead, but for now, there are 12 Heartland teams, with seven in the North Island. Of those seven teams three are in the upper half (Thames Valley, Ngati Porou East Coast and Poverty Bay), three are in the lower half (Wanganui, Wairarapa-Bush and Horowhenua-Kapiti) and King Country is slap bang in the middle.
This could be broken into two regional pods, with the winners of each meeting in a "semifinal" to determine who plays the winner of the South Island.
There are other permutations here, but this seems the most easily workable initially.
The rapid depopulation of many heartland and rural areas has seriously undermined the viability of senior rugby in parts of the country. Heartland rugby will survive but it will have to cut its cloth to fit.
In community rugby, the ends just do not justify the means. Wealthy schools have spent stupid money to crush aspiration at less wealthy schools; clubs have spent silly money to win trophies that have become increasingly irrelevant to the communities they are meant to represent; and NZR has overspent to satisfy the wishes of their loyal Heartland unions.
The bucks need to stop here.