Grassroots sport: Is club rugby on the rocks?

By Nathan Limm

Former All Blacks player Pita Alatini spoke with second-year AUT journalism student Nathan Limm on the future of New Zealand Rugby Clubs amidst the uncertainty of a global pandemic. 

According to World Rugby, there are 520 clubs in New Zealand, boasting more than 100,000 players. Not one of those players is representing their union.

Covid-19 has seen perhaps the most drastic action by a New Zealand government in our nation’s history. But while lockdown is keeping the coronavirus in check, its impact on sports may be felt long into the future.

Pita Alatini, who played 17 tests for the All Blacks between 1999 and 2001, is the director of rugby at Pakuranga United Rugby Club. Pakuranga United is one of the largest clubs in New Zealand, registering around 500 junior players and just under 200 senior players at the beginning of the 2020 season. Alatini says the lockdown equation is simple: no rugby means no club.

Director of rugby Pita Alatini. Photo www.Photosport.co.nz

“We’re really digging into the unknown at the moment and that’s quite scary…Not having Tuesday or Thursday training as well as Saturday gatherings is huge, especially for us as staff. None of those functions happening means there’s no money for the club.”

Just like small businesses, clubs require money to pay staff and maintain their fields. But while Covid-19 restrictions continue to postpone the 2020 season, clubs are left with a timer on their future.

While the fields remain empty, so do the stands, the bar and the restaurant. Clubs are built on social exchange. The casual beer with friends after a match is integral to the survival of the entire facility. Alatini says the best way for Pakuranga United to maintain a sense of community and interaction with their players is through social media.

“[For coaches], it’s keeping in touch with their players and seeing if they’re all good in that mental and social space. There are definitely platforms where guys can still get together – albeit apart – to have a little social aspect and keep in touch.”

This connection is not only important for the club’s current player base; a relationship with schools is also of vital significance. The reality of senior club rugby is that it is ever-dependent on the influx of leaving schoolboy players. However, with the entire season in doubt, roughly 25,000 high school rugby players will be affected.

The magnitude of 1st XV rugby in New Zealand is not to be underestimated. Modern-day stars such as Damien McKenzie, Anton Lienert-Brown and Reiko Ioane were all on display in the Land Rover 1st XV competition just a few short years ago.

Missing out on a year’s worth of future All Blacks, Super Rugby and club stars will likely harm the stream of high-quality players into New Zealand Rugby’s development system.

Even without Covid-19, rugby is a declining sport in New Zealand. According to a School Sport New Zealand Census, rugby union has seen a 12 per cent decline in its player base between 2014 and 2018, with a 6 per cent drop in 2018 alone.

For rugby clubs, the few players who continue with rugby after high school are crucial.

Pakuranga United is in the unique position of having seven east Auckland high schools in-zone for the club.

However, if restrictions continue to plague the duration of the season, maintaining relationships with school teams will be a difficult task.

Alatini, who regularly visits schools and works with school rugby coaches, thinks the best way to stay in the minds of schoolboy players is through cyberspace.

“For us, it’s diving in and finding out how we can remain in contact by doing some stuff online with them, keeping them engaged. Coming out of it [the Covid-19 crisis], you’d be hoping by then they’ll be firing and ready to go.”

Ultimately, the survival of all clubs in New Zealand will be dependent on their capacity to engage with their players and fan bases. Alatini says if they are unable to connect with their people, the club will cease to exist.

Nevertheless, he is confident in the ability of Pakuranga United to remain relevant and present in local minds.

“There’s still strong support within the community which will always be there. It’s just a matter of always touching base to keep those guys engaged so they help get these members back.”

Clubs will start to reopen as New Zealand slowly conquers Covid-19, but the true impact of the crisis is yet to be felt. The sporting community has no choice but to hunker down and ride this wave of uncertainty.