Club rugby, once the heartbeat of heartland rugby is not in good health. The latest victim of the decline of club rugby is the Puketoi club, which had to pull out of the Wairarapa senior club competition this season due to a lack of players. It's a decline that mirrors the decline in our representative fortunes.
Amie Hickland talks to Wairarapa clubs to find out just what's wrong with our club rugby scene.

Go back 30 years and Wairarapa club rugby was in good heart.

More than that. The Wairarapa-Bush rugby team was almost top of the tree, footing it with the big boys in the National Provincial Championship.

Fast forward to 2011 and the state of club rugby is not a patch on what it used to be and our representative squad languishes in the cellar of the Heartland competition.

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It's clearly no coincidence.

So what's happened to our club rugby and are the clubs going to survive?

The future of proud Puketoi Rugby Football Club is certainly on the line, after they had to pull out of the Wairarapa-Bush premier division competition this season.

The decision was made at a special meeting in Pongaroa in April, after a shortage of players had already forced the team to default two games.

Arguably Puketoi's most famous son is former All Black Brett Harvey, these days the club secretary. He said the decision this year is nothing to panic about and is intended to last only one season.

"It's not the first time we have struggled for numbers but it's worse now than ever before - we had to pull the plug," he said.

Mr Harvey said in the early 1980s there was a sub union in Puketoi which had six teams, and included one team from Dannevirke.

He played for a couple of years, and then Puketoi amalgamated with other clubs around 1986. Mr Harvey said the reason Puketoi struggles because there are less people living in the area; "squash is nearly finished here too".

He said the club has used imports to make up numbers for the last few years, but doubts they could get enough to field a team again.

"I personally believe we have too many clubs for the amount of players," he said.

The lack of "young fellas" in the area has meant the club has struggled to have a team for a few years. Most of them come to the area for farming employment, which Mr Harvey said is also lacking, and the club will have a meeting before the end of the year to decide if they can go on.

"We need an influx of players to get back on our feet," he said.

Even the young fellas are noticing the same trends.

GREYTOWN

fullback, Reece Lett, has been playing rugby since he was seven.

"I loved kicking the ball around with my mates at school, and running around trying to score the coolest try," said the 21-year-old.

Mr Lett said most of his mates play rugby either in Wairarapa or Wellington, but he has a few that don't play because they are busy working or can't afford to get injured.

"Some play other sports, and some just don't play any more because they aren't interested in rugby as much," he said.

He would eventually like to make a top Wairarapa Bush side, but would be content just having fun with the boys in his team.

MARTINBOROUGH

Rugby Football Club president Daniel Hawkins said there is always a constant struggle to find players.

"The passion for it seems to have died off quite a lot, which makes it quite hard to keep it all going."

He said injuries, or even the fear of injuries, seem to play a large role in the diminishing

numbers. "If you are self employed and play rugby and get injured, you won't have an income - so good players disappear in to the dark away from rugby."

Mr Hawkins said a lack of competition for under 21 players is also a factor, as going straight from college to senior rugby is a "big step".

Greytown Rugby Football Club president, Neil Morison, agrees.

The club has fielded two teams for some time, but made the tough decision to only have one team - Senior A - this season.

"However, we have been down to one team before so shouldn't panic," he said.

He said now a lack of younger player competitions probably impacts on the number of players wanting to commit to a club.

"Family and work commitments, and possibly a more casual attitude, may mean there are less people putting their heart and soul into a club."

Masterton Red Star Rugby Club president, Peter Semmens, said it is getting harder for each club every year. Twenty-five years ago club rugby was much bigger.

"For a start there were four divisions - first, second, third and under 21.

"Today we have two under 21 sides."

In contrast, there were 14 under 21 sides in 1986.

"If you look at Masterton Red Star, which has two senior teams now - back in 1986 Red Star had four teams, and Masterton had four as well," he said.

Martinborough also had a good following boasting a senior first team, a senior thirds, an under 21's team and a women's rugby team.

"There were plenty of players to choose from and there was a good following from all," said Mr Hawkins.

Greytown also had three men's teams 20 to 30 years ago, and Mr Morison said half the players were under the age of 23. They also struggle to find volunteers, as well as Martinborough.

"We currently only have about five committee members who are doing a fantastic job, but small numbers with lots to do it increases the chance of burnout," said Mr Hawkins.

He said this makes it hard to keep committee members, let alone boost club numbers.

The number of volunteers at Masterton Red Star is "slowly but surely" getting worse, according to Mr Semmens.

"What you find is the volunteers are now all getting older," he said.

But this does not mean the clubs are struggling financially.

"The opportunity for grants and sponsorship are streets ahead of where they used to be," said Mr Semmens.

He said the culture of the club has changed alongside New Zealand society.

Drinking habits have also changed, with stricter laws meaning young players don't like to hang around as much after games.

"The drink-driving side does have some impact, but most are fairly responsible and leave their cars or get a ride home - which we strongly encourage," said Mr Hawkins.

Neil Morison said any drinking changes may have even impacted on team spirit.

"That, along side the family demands, mean many have one drink and go."

But there is light on the horizon for club rugby, with the game flourishing at junior level. Greytown's junior club(JAB) is increasing and Martinborough's junior level rugby is also "thriving", according to Mr Hawkins.

"The introduction of rippa rugby has helped with more girls and younger kids playing," he said.

"Support is huge so that is a big factor towards the future of the club."

Their junior club numbers have been increasing 10 to 15 per cent each year, and now they have around 100 junior members.

Masterton Red Star is following the same pattern; "up until college rugby junior club rugby is strong."

"College is where the rot starts to set in," Semmens said.

He said a lack of coaches, as well as not having good coaches, seems to be where kids part their way from rugby.

MASTERTON

born former All Black, Brian Lochore, said there were three main reasons senior club rugby is struggling - but it is not just a Wairarapa problem.

"The ones that are healthy are clubs with good spirit, good coaches and a good administration," he said.

Lochore said good administration of a club is a necessary starting point to build up the spirit of a team.

"It's underestimated how important club administration is," he said. Although he hasn't spent a lot of time within club rugby this year, he said he went to watch a junior team and the grounds were "buzzing" - senior levels teams are not.

"Commitment isn't as strong as it used to be," said Mr Lochore, who said shift work seems to play a huge role in a lack of people turning up to train, which then destroys the point of going for everybody else.

"You've all got to commit, it's as simple as that."