A brave new era for rugby, or a sign we're going soft?
North Harbour Rugby will create a first tonight when a non-contact rugby grade for boys kicks off.
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.
Thirteen teams have registered for the grade.
The move 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."
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.