Grassroots looking mighty thin

Kaikorai fullback Tony Ensor (right) catches the ball ahead of Dunedin’s Tim Cossens during the...
Kaikorai fullback Tony Ensor (right) catches the ball ahead of Dunedin’s Tim Cossens during the club final at Forsyth Barr Stadium in July 2016. Looking on are Will Cosgriff (left) and Louis Tili. Photo: Gerard O'Brien
The All Blacks are top of the pile, the Highlanders are flying high and the Black Ferns can do no wrong. But down below that top level, things are not all rosy.

The grassroots is struggling and things are not far away from reaching crisis level.

Rugby writer Steve Hepburn talks to a few who have their ear to the ground.

A milk bottle always has some cream.

The argument goes that the bigger the bottle, the bigger the cream.

Apply that to rugby and the more people playing the game to a good standard then the bigger the cream — the cream being the All Blacks.

It does not always hold true — Bangladesh has a population of 163 million, but it is no world cricket force, yet — but generally the larger the milk bottle the larger — and better — the cream.

In the grassroots levels of New Zealand Rugby there are plenty of worries out there about the milk bottle.

Those that look after the cream — the professional game — do not seem to be concerned, but down below these are worrying times. The bottle is shrinking and sooner or later the cream is going to be affected.

Players are drifting away from the game, coaches are harder to find, clubrooms are emptying while administrators are getting older and running out of steam.

There are 25 fewer teams playing the game in the adult ranks then there were 20 years ago.

Dunedin premier club rugby went down to nine teams last year when Pirates failed to get a team on the park. It hoped to return to the premier grade this year but that never happened.

Now, talk to most club people who watch and work in club rugby and the question is not if the competition will go down to eight teams, but when.

These are changing times. Team sports, not just rugby, are facing challenges.

There are a whole lot of reasons for the changes and no one sport is immune.

Change is inevitable. That is life. Perhaps one just has to accept it and move on.

But it seems to be happening quickly in club rugby and that is the foundation of the game in this country.

Zingari-Richmond chairman Stephen Baughan said these were indeed changing times.

"It is significantly bad for a whole lot of reasons. There is definitely less players playing the game. And the standard of rugby is nowhere near where it used to be," he said.

"At the moment we have nine premier teams and I can’t see there being nine premier teams in five years time."

The players are simply not there. Clubs are working hard but it is not easy to get players.

"A lot of students now are just not playing rugby. People think they are still playing but there are no social rugby grades. There are college teams and that is it.

"There is a lot more commitment to play rugby at premier level and guys have just got so many other options.

"It probably started when the game went professional. Then premier teams started becoming more professional and the demand on the players have grown."

The game has changed markedly. It is much more of a game of confrontation and physicality.

"It is a completely different game. But I think the majority of players do not have the same basic skills that used to be around. To be able to pass, kick, tackle."

A more physical game led to injuries, and truckloads of them.

That happens in the professional game — just look at the Chiefs and Blues — but club teams also suffer big injury tolls. Alhambra-Union was into double figures of injured players a couple of games into the premier club season.

Premier club sides carry squads of 30. Some colts sides have 40 odd players.

That is another issue — players turning up every week.

Southern chairman Blair Crawford said the growth of individualism had implications for a team sport.

"That individual focus means a lot of people just do not have that commitment to the sport. You have a lot of people who are willing to do a bit here and there but they will never commit," he said.

"We had the premiership winning team last year and this season we just could not get an assistant coach for the team. We tried and tried but just could not get one.

"It is a battle to get people back to the clubrooms. Players stop playing and they just drift away from the club. That is one of the biggest issues, just getting players to stay involved. They might play and then a couple of their mates move on and they just don’t stay."

Even when the club won the premier final last year, the club rooms were far from overflowing.

Town clubs do it harder than clubs with defined catchments, such as Green Island and Taieri.

Clubs became too reliant on students and that meant they ignored the decline of playing numbers in secondary schools in the south.

"You’ve still got those enthusiastic ones who are playing for the right reasons and are old-school. But a lot of them are not. They might play up to colts and then just not play anymore."

Injury tolls have skyrocketed.

"You can remember those days when you could have 17 players and get through a season. It would simply not happen now.

"Everyone has got injuries. Or they can not afford to get injuries so they simply don’t play anymore."

All that makes it far from plain sailing for the club administrator.

"It is just hard work. So much harder than it used to be. You just can’t sit back and expect people will come.

"But you can’t keep handing out the free drinks, the enticements to get the players involved. It is the game which should be the driver. The camaraderie within the team and playing the game.

"So many players don’t or can’t sort of accept where they should be playing. The days when you were picked in a team and accepted it, they’re long gone."

Up country, Arrowtown president Simon Spark said the clubs in the Lakes basin benefited from the population surge. Other clubs further down the Clutha basin were struggling to get a team on the paddock.

But still the Arrowtown side which trots out each week is far from settled.

"There is still a percentage who are committed to playing every week. But there is still probably a majority who are there on a Saturday and will then have something else on," Spark said.

"We have got something like 40 players on our books and still we are just getting the 22 for the game on Saturday."

Clubs varied in strength from year to year. He had heard of some clubs getting between eight and 10 to training and that made it tough to do anything.

Players were giving the game away at an earlier age and that hit clubs.

With no senior reserve grade in Central Otago that made it difficult to cater for all standards of players.

"But you’ve got to create a rugby experience for all people. People want to be involved and want to get better so you have to provide the coaching.

"But you have the player who only wants to be there for the socialising, who might go away for two or three weeks and then come back. That can be hard to stomach."

The Otago Rugby Football Union has been working on issues around player retention. It will outline some possible solutions and ideas next week.

 

Numbers don’t lie
The hard truth

25 — the reduction in the number of teams in the Dunedin metropolitan competition in the past 20 years.

28 — do a simple search on the home computer and that is how many gyms, or fitness centres, come up in Dunedin. There is likely to be many more. A quick hour in the gym beats training twice a week in the wind and rain.

743 — the drop in high school pupils in Dunedin from 2005-15.

49 — the number of players who will not play for the eight premier teams in the Dunedin club competition this afternoon because of injury or unavailability. That is actually a decrease on what it had been in previous weeks.

148 — pages in the rugby law book.

3000 — at least this many who play futsal in Dunedin.

4 — teams which defaulted in club competitions in Otago last Saturday.

35 — the number of sports offered by a Dunedin high school.

0.6 — the percentage chance that a pupil leaving high school in the south will become a professional rugby player.

30 — the minimum number said to be needed to run a club’s premier squad.

Comments

Steve Hepburn's article is to the mark. Grassroot retention and development is a global problem which requires global joined up thinking to find a solution. Fun, heritage, values, taking part in sport, friendship combine to add up to what makes our sport unique. The elite part of rugby will always be catered for but without the support and continued development of all areas of the game at foundation level ( including the recruitment & training of volunteers ) eventually even the top level will suffer. It's concerning to read that even in the land of the World Cup holders these common problems exist, hopefully it's not too late for the global grass root rugby community to collectively rectify.

Ed Crozier - Immediate Past President SRU - Current President Shawlands RFC