Opinion: Rugby needs to stay a participation sport not just a spectator one

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Opinion – Who could ever have imagined that All Blacks rugby would become a nice-to-have.

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We’re always told that the All Blacks pay New Zealand Rugby’s (NZR) way. How, through the good old trickle down theory, the game in this country is financially sustained by our mighty men in black.

Only that model is now broken. And badly too.

So much money has been lavished upon the professional game, that the rest of rugby has suffered.

Without deals, such as the mooted one between NZR and American outfit Silver Lake, rugby as we’ve known it will cease to exist.

Unless NZR can attract huge financial investment, such as the $465 million Silver Lake are said to have on the table, we’ll be left with All Blacks rugby and precious little else.

I don’t know about you, but I like children playing rugby. I like that it’s still being offered at most secondary schools.

I want people involved in age-group representative programmes and I’m particularly eager to see women’s club, provincial and (hopefully) Super Rugby flourish. I want our Black Ferns sevens and 15 a-side teams to have busy schedules and to showcase female footy to the world.

I’m happy to have Super Rugby Aotearoa and optimistic that multinational franchise competitions can begin again soon. Whether that’s within the Sanzaar nations – or a more global endeavour – we’ll have to wait and see.

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I live in a Heartland union and absolutely love that my local butcher, baker and candlestick maker are out there playing rep rugby too.

I think life in New Zealand would be worse without those things. That rugby needs to be a participation sport, rather than just a spectator one.

We need a more personal connection to the game – whether we’re players, coaches, managers, volunteers or just sideline supporters – if the game is to flourish. It can’t merely be a game that we watch on television, played by people who live in a bubble that none of us are entitled to penetrate.

I get that the All Blacks are a big deal. I get that many New Zealanders are immensely proud of the team and their deeds. I get that broadcasters pay big bucks to see these blokes in action.

But the All Blacks are also bankrupting the game. Worse than that, they risk eliminating the pathway that got them to the exalted positions they enjoy today.

Are these men so out of touch with reality that they cannot see the damage being done to the game? Are they so unaware that they don’t realise the strife community rugby is in?

Are they so selfish that they will happily bankrupt their employers?

The New Zealand Rugby Players’ Association (NZRPA) are very good at saying no. At turning their nose up at virtually every means by which NZR propose to find the funds to pay their wages.

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The players didn’t like having to go to South Africa and Argentina and Europe every year. Then they didn’t like staying home, because Super Rugby Aotearoa was too much like hard work.

They don’t want global competitions and they’re not too interested in quarantine either.

Do you think the Bangladesh cricket team are enjoying their trip to New Zealand? Do you think they wonder what their governing body have signed them up for?

Or do you think maybe they’re just professionals who are happy to go where they’re told, when they’re told?

Our leading rugby players aren’t without options. There are teams in Japan or Europe or even the United States who would happily find a spot for them.

But if they are going to stay, then they have to realise that there’s more to rugby than just them. That the All Black jersey the players say they revere – and never want to see cheapened – was here before them and will hopefully remain long after them.

Every time they rubbish an NZR idea and refuse to accept the latest revenue-generating strategy, they damage the wider game just that little bit more and erode the relationship between themselves and the fans.

For generations of New Zealanders, rugby has been more than a game. It’s given them their recreation and their social life and a sense of identity and purpose. It’s connected them to their communities and to a proud tradition of achievement.

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But right now, rugby risks becoming the domain of the few. Of being a game where an elite are given all the resources and make all the decisions, while the needs and wants of others are disregarded.

Rugby has always been about more than the All Blacks and the NZRPA need to be reminded of that.

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