25 May 2016

Fears for rugby's future in Auckland

6:54 am on 25 May 2016

Rugby has long been regarded as New Zealand's national game but the sports's leaders fears the sport could become irrelevant in the country's biggest city.

Auckland's increasing ethnic diversity, a teenage drop off in participation an ever increasing number of sporting options are all playing a part.

In a bid to halt the sport's decline in Auckland, New Zealand Rugby has launched a five year plan to turn things around.

Steve Tew during Keven Mealamu's announcement of his retirement.

New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Of the 150 thousand registered rugby players in New Zealand 40 thousand come from the wider Auckland region.

But that 40 thousand equates to less than three percent of the wider Auckland population and that doesn't sit well with New Zealand Rugby.

A 2014 joint survey between Auckland Council and Sport New Zealand showed rugby sits just 20th on the list of sports participated in by Aucklanders.

Last year an attempt to increase participation by five per cent across the Auckland region failed.

New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew says that's forced the union to make Auckland rugby a top priority.

"It's a simple matter of metrics and if we are not relevant in this broader geographical space that spans the Bombay Hills to the north of Albany then we won't be relevant it's as simple as that."

One area New Zealand Rugby is targeting is secondary school students.

The organisation's Wider Auckland Strategy Initiatives manager, Simon Devoy, says large numbers of children are leaving the sport in the move from primary to secondary school.

"Kids equally they love the combat and they love they love smashing people if you like, came back in the feedback (survey) but equally there's a concern about getting hurt and primarily that kids give up or carry on playing is around the adult experience and coaches have a disproportionately high impact on that so essentially what they're saying is the better the coach, the more kids tend to enjoy rugby."

A number of initiatives have been introduced in an attempt to encourage more young teenage players such as a new under 69kg competition, a 10-aside tournament and Ripper Rugby - non tackle rugby.

But even with all these varieties of the game, rugby still isn't the most played sport in Auckland.

Children play a school rugby game near the Takapuna Rugby Football Club on 3 September 2011, ahead of the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

What does the future hold for rugby in Auckland? Photo: AFP

College Sports Auckland runs all the school sport competitions in Auckland, working with nearly 100,000 students.

The head of the organisation, Dave Currie, says rugby is only the third most played sport in Auckland schools, behind netball and football.

He says the biggest problem facing rugby is schools is its perception.

"Football is a simpler game, it's easier to coach and to umpire, rugby is a bit more complex and I think that's part of the trouble.

"The other part of the trouble, I think, there is some concern from parents around concussion and whatever and I think that is having some impact as well."

Currie said sports need to be acutely aware of the changing make up of Auckland's ethnic population and the way sport is viewed.

Daniel ( Taniela ) Tupou of Sacred Heart makes a break. Auckland Secondary Schools 1st XV rugby union match, Sacred Heart v Kelston Boys at Sacred Heart College, Auckland, New Zealand. Saturday 10th May 2014.

Daniel Tupou was an international hit when his blockbusting abilities in Auckland's school boy competition were captured on film. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

"The sports that are going to do well are those that understand the environment in Auckland and provide competition structures and formats that meet the needs of the emerging and existing student population.

"So recognize what's happening in Auckland and adapt to those changes, if you do that well then you'll remain competitive, if you don't then you'll struggle."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs

We have regular online commentary of local and international sport.