- 9 Oct 07, 09:21 AM
By Sean Martin in Wellington - Could it be so? New Zealand, the country that lives and breathes rugby union, is slowly falling out of love with the game?
There was the predictable gnashing of teeth over the All Blacks’ shock World Cup quarter-final exit – it led news bulletins, dominated front and back pages, talkback radio was awash with the topic and web pages were hastily constructed on the subject.
The Foreign Minister even entered the fray to say that the referee was at fault. Heck, even the prime minister and leader of the opposition weighed in with their tuppence worth.
In fact, it seemed everyone had an opinion on why the All Blacks failed: the aforementioned referee, the rotation policy, resting players or a lack of tough matches.
While the disbelief was widespread you got the feeling it was not entirely unexpected. After all, as Kiwis we’ve all been down this road before.
It seems we’ve become somewhat immune to big-time failure.
But the reaction of many of the New Zealand public spoke volumes about how rugby is struggling to retain its place as a crucial part of our social fabric.
Many wrote letters to the editor, called in to talkback shows or wrote on chatrooms to say what was the unthinkable – get over it, it doesn’t really matter.
There was a time when the heart and soul of New Zealand communities was the local rugby club. People’s lives revolved around the game. It gave New Zealanders a sense of identity on a world stage. They were our All Blacks, they were our team, no matter where you lived. There was even an advertisement on television which had people bleeding ‘black’ blood – the implication was that we were all united by the All Blacks.
But that is changing, and it was changing before this latest disappointment, but the latest failure to capture rugby’s biggest prize may hasten that change.
Professionalism has created a divide between what used to be the ‘people’s game’ and the people. The All Blacks are no longer ‘just one of the boys’ – they are put on a pedestal, feted and praised and that relationship with the public has been lost – perhaps forever.
And rugby is losing its allure. Fewer players are now taking to the field each weekend. The number of current players in 2007 stood at 136,059 – some 5,000 less than the previous year.
The New Zealand Rugby Union is facing a battle at all levels of the game. According to a survey from Sport and Recreation New Zealand, more young boys are playing football than rugby. The NZRU has allocated NZ$25m (£9.36m) over the next three years to help arrest the slide at both age-group and club rugby levels.
And at the higher echelons of the sport the NZRU is struggling to retain its best players with foreign clubs dangling fat wads of cash, the likes of which the NZRU can’t match, in front of not only All Blacks, but also the next tier of players – thus eating into the depth that NZ rugby has for so long prided itself on.
The financial signs are not good for the NZRU either. Forget the monetary impact of failing to add the world champions tag to the most marketable team in rugby union, last year it lost almost NZ$5 million (£1.87m). And worryingly, this year it will be worse as the impact of a high NZ dollar eats into the NZRU’s bottom line even further. It does have significant financial reserves, but a good portion of this is already earmarked to help fund the 2011 World Cup on these shores.
Rugby is also facing more competition for the public’s sporting attention. The NZ Warriors playing in Australia’s National Rugby League competition captured the imagination by making the play-offs and a new professional football team, the Wellington Phoenix, has averaged home crowds of over 12,000 in its inaugural season – bigger than most crowds for the national provincial rugby competition.
Rugby remains integral to New Zealand and New Zealanders, but its grip on the nation is lessening. To win the right to host the 2011 World Cup, the New Zealand bid played on the fact that the country lived and breathed rugby.
Certainly it is hard to escape with live provincial rugby on television Thursday-Sunday and, in case you missed it, a pay-per-view channel screening only rugby – aptly named the Rugby Channel.
While the sport holds a monopoly on the back pages and the airwaves there exists a growing number who cannot be bothered with the amount of attention the sport receives. It faces a stern test to re-engage with those on the periphery to ensure the 2011 Rugby World Cup is a resounding success.
It is perhaps a sign of a nation maturing, a country more confident in itself, that it no longer needs rugby to identify who it is. It is after all, only a game.