Is Club Rugby in New Zealand Doomed?
by Paul Waite
8 Dec 2000
For some years now there has been a disquieting feeling in the back of my mind as to the state of New Zealand rugby at the grass roots level.
Recently the NZRFU undertook to send people to visit with and talk with club rugby all around the country, and was making all the right noises regarding its committment to th fundamentals of the game here.
However, the following opinion from someone involved at this level has once again raised the spectre of the possible degeneration of the game in New Zealand as a direct result of professionalism. Of course the following article, from NZPA, is also given more credence by the form of the All Blacks over the past two years…
The Otago University Rugby Club believes policies implemented by the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) are a threat to the continuation of rugby as the national game. President Ross Brown slammed the high performance policy of the NZRFU in his annual report and said it posed a threat, possibly mortal, to club rugby. Otago University, one of New Zealand’s most famous clubs, is no longer able to field sides sprinkled with Otago representatives and All Blacks. “If club rugby is mortally wounded, the days of rugby being our national game are numbered,” Brown warned. “The All Blacks in 10 or 20 years may be struggling to qualify for the quarterfinals of the World Cup.
“The resources currently being put into high performance rugby should be redirected into club rugby. What is wrong with clubs having professional coaches and administrators while the players are still amateur?”
Brown said club rugby was in trouble throughout New Zealand, including Dunedin and Otago. “The policy of the NZRFU in identifying talented players while still at school has led to a plethora of Colts and Academy sides, who are set a training and playing schedule which eats heavily into the club season. “Many of these players gravitate naturally to University clubs and that is the reason we fielded more than 40 players last season. “The high performance policy is saying in essence the traditional method of developing representative players via club rugby is no longer good enough. “Because of the current neglect of club rugby that may well be the case but, in my view, the consequence of the current policy will be the continued diminution of club standards and numbers.”
Brown on Thursday said he stood by his criticism of NZRFU policies. “Club rugby’s going to be squeezed out the way things are going. You’re going to have an All Blacks side in the future which won’t even know what the club culture is all about.” Brown said he hoped his comments, and the situation of his club, would cause the issues to be debated around New Zealand. Otago University club captain Bill Thompson added his own criticism of the NZRFU in the club’s annual report. “I am yet to be convinced the NZRFU is even listening to clubs even though they give lip service to how they see club rugby being so important to the future of the game. “I get the distinct impression the game has been taken over by people who have never served the game at grass roots level, and they appear to be on the NZRFU staff.”
When people like this start to make noises then ears should prick up, and we should take notice. It might seem like common sense to fast-track a chosen elite through an academy system to All Blackdom, but unfortunately this kind of linear programming doesn’t often work as advertised.
The strength of All Black rugby in the past and, I believe, in the future, lies with the traditional broad-based club and provincial system.
If we destroy the base of the pyramid, then the tip will inevitably fall.