The stark realities of community rugby's player exodus have been laid bare as the Auckland and North Harbour unions prepare to kick-start their seasons.
In Auckland just 10 of 16 senior clubs will field premier, premier development (or B-grade rugby) and under-21 teams in this year's competition that begins June 20 – the three staple grades of men's club rugby.
An Auckland Rugby source said that although the after-effects of Covid-19 will be blamed, there were signs that the club scene was headed for this sort of fall anyway. That has been echoed by the clubs canvassed by the Herald, who said the pandemic had created some financial burdens but numbers were tanking anyway.
The reasons for this are myriad including demographic and lifestyle changes, but it has reached the point where some clubs and even entire grades are facing a tipping point.
In North Harbour the draw for the first round of club footy has been delayed as the clubs worked the phones to try to muster teams, though there will be significant gaps that could get worse as injuries and attrition hit.
"There are more reasons than Covid at play here," said Waitakere City director of rugby Tony Lafotanoa. "It's the death of club rugby in Auckland that everyone is good at talking about but not as good at doing anything about."
Waitakere is one of two clubs from last season's Gallaher Shield that will not be fielding a premier team. The other, Mt Wellington, will not field a team in the premier development competition either.
"We've struggled to get a team together this year," admitted Mt Wellington delegate Warren Makaua. "Covid is a contributing factor but it's not the sole reason.
"We're concentrating on trying to get an under-21 side together but we're even struggling there to be honest."
Makaua said the club's future was on the line.
"It's a matter of survival for us. We've tried merging in the past and it hasn't quite worked out but if that's what it takes to survive we'll look at it again."
Some clubs who will field premier teams – including East Tamaki, Otahuhu, Te Papapa and Suburbs – were described as having "significant" financial or playing number problems, with some having both.
"In effect a further six clubs out of 14 remaining premier one clubs are dying," the source said.
Te Papapa Onehunga's Jim Kuresa-Moore painted a grim picture for his club saying it "was just a matter of time before we're like Mt Wellington. While his club will field a premier one side, there were serious question marks over their premier development team and they would not field an under-21 squad.
They've employed new coaches to try to attract players but the senior numbers remain barely viable.
In a novel solution that might point to further rationalisations, West Auckland clubs Waitakere and Waitemata have combined resources to field an under-21 squad.
It might be the way forward, but for Lafotanoa it should not mask the wider issues facing clubs.
"There's a remnant of boys still wanting to play but generation after generation have been told to ignore club rugby.
"That sense of tribalism and belonging that used to belong to us has been pushed back to schools and the schools have shut the gates on the clubs."
Lafotanoa said he'd given 30 years of his life to club rugby and he did not want to "demonise schools but the system is broken".
Lafotanoa echoed the concerns of many when he said the "professionalization" of some Auckland schools and the drive for 1A success had created an environment where schools were solely focused on performance at the cost of participation.
"Let us come through the school gates and work with your also-rans because they're not important to you but they're still important to us."
Lafotanoa lamented the fact clubs often spent six years developing young players while schools spent less than a year destroying them.
The situation is even more precarious over the bridge. Half of the 12 senior clubs will be missing teams at premier one, premier development or under-21 level.
While East Coast Bays, Northcote, Massey, Takapuna, Silverdale and North Shore will likely field teams across the three "performance" grades, Helensville, Navy, Glenfield, Kumeu, Mahurangi and Marist will have gaps.
Helensville has not fielded a premier one team for several seasons now, likewise Navy. Glenfield pulled out of the premier competition early last season and will not return this year.
Marist defaulted the final few games in 2019 and its future as a premier team was understood to be tenuous, though chairman Andi Burrell said they would definitely be on the start line. There would be no premier development squad, however.
"I've been at the club 15 years, the last eight on the board and the last three as chairman. The struggle for numbers has never been so great.
"We're better off than many but it's always best to be honest about your situation."
Burrell said they had been in talks with the union about a player share option with Glenfield, who will have a development squad but no premier or under-21 sides, but other clubs objected.
His Glenfield counterpart Cameron McNab said it had become a near-impossible task to bring young players into the club, particularly with the local college having no rugby programme to speak of.
"We can only fly so far with the 'family values' motto," he said.
Helensville chairman Scott Narbey said they will not be fielding a Premier team or an Under-21 side but were hopeful they had the numbers for a Prem 2 team.
"Ask us next week and we'll tell you," he joked. "Our junior numbers are looking really good, but senior we are going to struggle."
Kumeu has bucked the trend somewhat being able to field premier one and two teams, but chairman Mark Hall conceded they were one of those clubs that were constantly challenged to keep their heads above water.
Their survival has been based on attracting kids from West Auckland schools, particularly Kelston Boys' High, that might ordinarily have been expected to go to one of the ARU's three West Auckland clubs, or North Harbour's Massey.
"The core of our premier team is based on the 2013 Kelston 1st XV," Hall said.
The appointment of Charlie McAlister as coach has also been a draw, but the club has been unable to guarantee an under-21 side.
Once we see the draw, if all three teams are playing at the same location we might be alright because we can do a bit of cross-pollination," he said.
"It's a grade that has its challenges," Hall said, with ambitious boys wanting to go straight to premiers and the "for the love of game" players waning in recent years.
Mahurangi, itself an amalgamation of the old Warkworth, Omaha and Kaipara Flats clubs, were at one stage looking capable of teams in all senior grades but have had to put a line through the development team post-Covid.
"We've had people who've returned home and not come back, players who've said they'll play and then not for whatever reason. People have lost their jobs and that has to be their priority," club president Chris Junovich said.