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Club rugby: A light at the end of the tunnel?

There’s nothing like an All Black loss to unite the nation. So obviously four out of the last five tests have been seen an eruption of feedback from the public, with many quick to point out that the issues faced by the national side are somewhat indicative of wider problems that rugby is facing in the country.


The sentiment is nothing new. What are now tweets and posts have always historically been thoughts expressed where rugby fans congregate – pubs, living rooms and most importantly, rugby clubs.

The outpouring of emotion has inevitably spilled over into the long and ongoing concern about that space. Ever since the advent of professionalism, the view that the grassroots game has been neglected and forgotten about by NZ Rugby (NZR) is prevalent, especially in the clubrooms themselves. Much like the All Blacks’ woes, the conversation about what needs to be done is passionate and ongoing.

The perception is that NZR have pushed all their chips in with the All Blacks and created a supply-side economic model where as long as they are making money, everyone underneath them will benefit. So where does that leave clubs now that, all of a sudden, the All Blacks brand seems an awful lot less valuable when they’re not winning?

In a case of pretty auspicious timing, NZR this week announced the Future of Rugby Clubs project, which it hopes will provide a “transformational plan to implement”.

“We’ve seen that the club network is challenged, as society has evolved,” NZR head of community rugby Steve Lancaster said.

“Strengthening rugby clubs is one of the priorities as one of the key parts of our participation plan back in 2019. The mess of Covid has meant we haven’t been able to do all of it but has also thrown up some opportunities like Sport NZ coming on board.

“They’ve stumped up with some financial support. But it’s not a lightbulb moment for us that all’s not well, more of a way to advance something we’ve been meaning to do. We’ve always been very hands off in regards to rugby clubs…they are the members of provincial unions and therefore that’s their relationship.But there is recognition on our part in providing leadership.It’ll be very much about how we can support the unions, but with a change in remit that clubs are part of our responsibility for all of the game.”

This also has to be seen as a thinly veiled way of saying the check from Silver Lake has cleared as well, which will come as a relief for many in the grassroots scene given that the All Blacks have probably given the Silicon Valley investment firm some serious buyer’s remorse lately.

While the nature of clubrooms around the country – beer, hot chips, lifers sitting in their own special table willing to chew the ear off anyone who engages with them in conversation – are fundamentally the same, they house a pretty diverse range of people when you venture from place to place. The demographic of Papatoetoe RFC is pretty different from the one found at Wyndham. Finding a way to please everyone and meet their needs isn’t easy.

Whanganui Rugby chief executive Bridget Belsham says that clubs are “a massive part of our communities and not just in a rugby sense”.

“The challenge clubs are having are around affording maintenance, while the volunteer base is getting smaller…what we want to make sure is that when the clubs get that money, they spend it wisely. We don’t want to look at this in five years’ time and have not achieved what we want to.”

Provincial powerhouse Canterbury runs a competitive urban and country club competition, although chief executive Tony Smail admits that things aren’t what they used to be.

“I’d probably challenge whether we’d still get back to the full heights of what it was,” he said, referring to the days of clubs fielding up to eight or nine senior sides.

“How do you measure success as a club? Is it how much your top team is winning or how you’ve managed to grow the club underneath? It’s a pretty easy question to answer. To have a thriving club you need people there. While a division one team is a focal point, clubs need to realize that players these days want to go where they feel comfortable.

It certainly was refreshing to get through almost an hour’s worth of conversation with Belsham and Smail without hearing the word ‘stakeholders’, an absolutely cursed term in sports communications. Belsham’s position as a chief executive sees her face the challenges of overseeing a grassroots competition with a paid staff of only half a dozen.

“There are so many people who invest so much time in rugby. I wish I could pay them all.”

So is this plan an admission of something that everyone pretty much knew anyway? Yes and no. For all the issues that professionalism has caused at grassroots level, it is still the way that the vast majority of junior and senior players engage with the game. Almost 500 clubs operate across the country, making it still very much the preeminent community sport and vital hub in smaller centres. As TJ Perenara proved when Norths recently won the Wellington union’s Jubilee Cup, the step down from test duty to club footy doesn’t have to be a huge one if the will is there.

New All Blacks assistant coach Jason Ryan celebrated his good news by attending his Sydenham club’s win in the Canterbury metro competition last weekend, alongside his father on the sideline as they watched Jason’s son play in the final. That’s three generations of cauliflower ears, all made on the same paddock. These are the feel good stories that will help reverse the almost volcanic backlash around the All Blacks’ current woes and the governing body itself.

“I do believe NZR have taken it on board. It’s a big beast, NZR, they’ve had a bit of publicity of late but we do feel the love,” Smail said.

The fact that really, no matter what sort of financial state clubs are in, ordinary folks spending time on the sidelines, helping out around the place and coaching kids are what is going to keep club rugby alive, is not lost on Belsham.

“It’s those people at the coal face that need to be supported for their time and energy. Anything we can do to support our clubs more, that’s what we need.”


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