A recent New Zealand Rugby report surprisingly pointed to the decreasing schoolboy rugby participation at an “alarming rate”.
It’s surprising news because rugby is New Zealand’s main sport. They have a strong culture built around it. And it’s not like they have rested on their laurels or done much to drive fans away either. They have a winning culture. They have won the last two Rugby World Cups and on the Southern Hemisphere front their local Super Rugby teams have been faring well and playing an appealing brand of rugby in the process. They also don’t have various official racial selection policies which override merit in order to achieve targets and demoralise a large segment of the game’s support base. And yeah, rugby on pay TV has a few audience limitation issues and yeah New Zealanders will speak of better times in the past as far as their economy is concerned but all-in-all, it’s still in reasonably good shape.
These factors above not only suggest NZ rugby should be in good nick closer to grassroots level, they tell a bit of a worrying story as far as South Africa school level rugby is concerned.
Economy/finance is an important consideration. In countries like Australia and England, rugby has been the domain of the wealthier class. Historically in New Zealand and South Africa rugby has tended to belong to a more egalitarian society. That is changing now. Advances particularly scientific have meant it’s slowly but surely becoming an elitist sport. School rugby is costly now. To produce a 1st XV level competitive player who stands a chance of continuing to play at a high level after school, now requires a substantial investment starting when boy hits his teens. So it is handing an advantage to schools with the financial muscle and willingness to support this in their budget. This is ultimately what’s killing the game in parts though. Smaller and/or less well-off schools cannot keep up. Their lack of competitiveness is ultimately leading to a growing gap between themselves and those schools which are able to dedicate more funds to rugby be it in the form of player recruitment, sponsoring, coaching, development through competition/facilities and even exposure to open doors after finishing school. The tipping point is reached when those other schools no longer have enough interested kids to form even one senior high school 15-player team. That’s generally the point of no return.
The New Zealand report has picked up on this. Schools that once offered rugby and were able to produce provincial players and the occasional international are disappearing off the school rugby map altogether.
The same thing is happening in SA. Schools that once formed part of the annual fixture list of the region’s big guns and had the means to pull off an upset, are just never heard from these days. In a few years time more school will join them in school rugby obscurity.
The world’s a different place these days too. For one there is a much greater safety consciousness. Things like concussions are treated very seriously. On average rugby boys are big and stronger than ever before, resulting in bigger collisions and if nothing else a greater visible concern amongst parents. It impacts negatively on rugby participation.
Ever stop to wonder how you’d make it through a normal day without a smartphone, well try imagining how you would have managed your time and lifestyle if you and everyone you’d known when you were a teenager had a cellphone. Girls aside, there are distractions aplenty for the boys growing up in this modern world. Rugby equals time away from things they’d rather be doing.
In South Africa racial transformation is taking place in schools based in previous white dominated residential areas, some faster than others. Not all the cultural groups that are starting to make up a larger segment of those schools that have always offered rugby, share the same passion for the sport. So it goes without saying that as this progression comes about, it has a directly proportional influence on decreasing interest in the game played at school level.