Struggling clubs around Auckland say the schoolboy rugby system is "destroying the grassroots".
The "alarming" fall of boys' participation in the sport was revealed in New Zealand Rugby's independent review into schools rugby last year.
Findings from the review showed that since 2013, the number of school teams in Auckland dropped a staggering 20 per cent, from 225 to 181. The situation was even worse in North Harbour, where school teams saw a drop of more than 30 per cent.
Several club rugby representatives spoken to by the Herald say many of the issues lie in the school rugby system – and that one of the reasons for the fall in youth participation has been because schoolboy rugby is killing clubs.
"I've worked for Auckland Rugby, I've worked at the professional level – in my opinion, schoolboy rugby has been detrimental to club football," says Waitemata Rugby Club director of rugby Brent Semmons.
Waitakere Rugby Club director of rugby Tony Lafotanoa added: "The system at the moment is not working for club rugby."
Semmons believes schools don't necessarily have the resources that clubs do to cater to youth rugby players.
The picture of youth leaving the national game follows a similar story: junior players leave the club rugby system, then slowly stop playing once they reach high school. The few that do continue often don't return to their rugby club of origin after school.
"The problem I have with the club versus school, is that the schools don't necessarily have the resources to cater for every kid," Semmons says.
"At Waitemata, for argument's sake, we have an under 13 open team and an under 13 restricted team. When those boys go to secondary schools, they won't have the under 14 version of it at their respective schools.
"Some schools can. Like if you look at the big boy schools at Auckland Grammar, in the past they've had up to 20 teams and they have a student body that can support those programmes and facilities. A lot of schools don't have that."
Semmons also echoed concerns from Sport New Zealand on the over-emphasis on competition over participation in youth sport.
"You could argue that a boy who plays as a 5-year-old all the way to 13 with different kids from different schools, and as soon as they hit secondary school, they disband basically," Semmons says.
"And you lose all that parental support, mothers and fathers who supported that group of boys and girls, all the way through to that age group.
"And then post-that, they go to secondary schools and some schools don't even have the programme, or those that do have the programme are big programmes and the emphasis is on performance as opposed to participation."
Semmons believes something that could fix the issue is for youth players to stay in the club rugby system for longer until under 16s or even further and schools can continue to focus on their flagship first XV programmes.
Professional pathways 'decimating club rugby'
A report revealing that several schoolboys are considering repeating their final year of high school if school sport remained suspended due to Covid-19 restrictions has sparked debate in the rugby community.
The report followed widespread concerns about the broadcasting and commercialisation of school sport.
While there are strict rules that players have to be under 18 on January 1 in the year of competition, some students who are young for their year will have the ability to repeat their final year and play in first XV competitions.
College Sport Auckland chief executive Mark Barlow says no student should be repeating school years purely for the purposes of sport.
"I would advise any student that the only reason they should be repeating a year of school is for academic purposes," Barlow told the Herald. "The College Sport belief is that secondary school sport enhances the school experience. It's not the school experience in itself."
"If a young adult is being encouraged to repeat a year on the hope of a professional contract, there is a failing somewhere in the system and our leadership," adds North Harbour Rugby boss David Gibson.
When asked by the Herald if schoolboy rugby has become too professionalised, Gibson – whose union has seen some of the worst drops in youth rugby participation in recent years – said: "I think the professional element to sports has deepened in the school sports system and needs balance.
"There have been some really sad stories where young sportspeople have been pushed to some dark places. Sports, rugby and schools need be aware of this. We all need to be aware of this."
However, many believe some schools and students are being left with little choice in the matter for fears of missing out on invaluable exposure due to the broadcasting of youth sport on TV.
"Sports could take the heat out of this problem by selecting only from club level. Therefore encouraging participation post-secondary school," rugby journalist Scotty Stevenson wrote on Twitter.
Manurewa Rugby Club president Kere Maihi echoed that sentiment, saying the pathway to professional rugby is unrealistic for many and "destroying the grassroots game".
"It's decimating club rugby in that the pathways skip the club scene," says Maihi. "Getting players picked up out of schools and basically going straight into the Super academies and if they're good enough maybe even straight into the Super teams.
"But the professional guys are picking up the cream of the crop, which they're able to and have the finances etc. And of course, all the players will take that option as much as they can. But it is definitely destroying the grassroots game."
Maihi believes the pathway from school sport to professional rugby also creates an unrealistic environment for many students and families.
"I do believe that it sets unrealistic expectations – and it's not necessarily just the kids, it's the parents as well – as to where they can go with their sporting career.
"For example, we're a very high poly (Polynesian) content in our club and you do have expectations from the family and the parents as to what is available for [the kids] to achieve. And I do fear for a lot of them that they're putting their eggs in one sporting basket without giving thought if they don't make it or if they get a career-ending injury, an awful lot of them have no plan B.
"That does worry me and I don't believe that that's been given enough thought by the people that run the game."
Maihi's view is that if sporting organisations picked youth players from clubs instead of high schools, many of these concerns could be avoided, while also helping foster the game at the grassroots level.
"Obviously I'm biased to the fact that I would like these players to be coming through the club system. And then picked up through the club system and keeping the game healthy and alive in the club system ... and then get picked up from there.
"If nothing else, it gives them a year or two of more maturity. Without a doubt there are a number of players who are at school and who can make that step up almost immediately.
"It's a business and they're just doing whatever they can to make their business successful. While I have a preference for the other alternative which is to be playing club, in the current climate, it's available for them to do and they do it.
"My preference is not for them to do it."
'Winning back hearts and the minds'
As clubs around Auckland struggle with falling participation while having to reckon with the financial pressures of the pandemic, some clubs are working to try to entice school leavers back into the club rugby system.
Lafotanoa says one of the ways clubs are trying to bring back youth players after they leave school is the development of a new competition called the "Super Club Rugby under-21s championship".
"Our clubs, as a collective, have decided to focus on working on winning back the hearts and the minds of those school leavers to come back to the clubs. And one of the things we've done is we've put together a brand new competition."
The competition, which kicks off on October 3, is a collective club and community-led competition involving clubs from Tāmaki Makaurau's three provincial unions.
The competition will see Auckland split into regions consisting of several representative teams – western, eastern, northern and southern conferences – which will ultimately battle it out for the title.
"We're excited about that because that is a club, community-led competition ... I think that's really exciting and it's something new. We're hoping that is going to get televised coverage."
Lafotanoa says clubs want to change the perception about club rugby.
"I think this is probably the biggest issue at the moment is the perception from the players who are leaving school about their opportunity to play representative football.
"At this point in time, we've got to say, they've got a poor perception of seeing club rugby as something that would help their professional development. And we want to change that. We want them to look at club as a legitimate step up and the perfect platform for them to springboard on."
Lafotanoa believes there needs to be more discussion and cooperation across New Zealand rugby to help preserve the sport among young people.
"We can't change the system itself. The system needs, I think, to be attacked together with all stakeholders – with everyone from the principals' association, Auckland Rugby or the provincial unions, New Zealand Rugby, College Sport. There needs to be a very full and frank sit down and talk through in principle how this needs to work.
"Schools and community club rugby, there needs to be a huge amount of work to bring those two entities [together] for the greater good of rugby and the greater of the development of a player. Because, for us in the club rugby community space, we believe we are a very valid part of that progression of helping to enhance a players' transition into adult rugby.
"Many of our clubs now have invested in directors of rugby, rugby people and also up-skilling with the coaching and working closely with our union a lot more now, more so than in the past to help build capacity for high performance framework for coaching, mentoring, teaching and training.
"Because those are the things absolutely that draw that distinction between schoolboy rugby and adult club rugby."