Chris Rattue: Why rugby is dying

Author
NZ Herald,
Section
Opinion,
Publish Date
Sunday, 23 December 2018, 4:45PM
The Blues could be good in 2019 - but will enough people care? (Photo / Photosport)
The Blues could be good in 2019 - but will enough people care? (Photo / Photosport)

"Rugby is dying."

That's what the man said to me recently, and it wasn't a flippant comment from a rugby hater.

This was from a rugby fan, with both a strong influence in and a detailed knowledge of the school sports scene.

He said — without hesitation — that league was still winning the battle for young hearts and minds in many Auckland places, despite the sport's problems.

I was shocked to hear it, particularly as rugby in Auckland feels as if it is on the verge of a re-boot while league is hardly riding the crest of a wave.

Tell me more, I replied.

In a nutshell, and in his view, the western and southern Auckland suburbs in particular are total league strongholds with the rising generation of players and fans.

The reasons? League was a "sexier" sport, more in tune with modern life. Along with that, Polynesians in particular loved the clean and open confrontations that league offered as opposed to rugby's messier, wrestling-style nature.

There was another reason. New rugby heroes easily identifiable with these areas were not emerging. There was a disconnect between rugby and this particular heartland. In his words, rugby needed more good stories emerging from the west and south.

We started mulling over the 2019 Blues squad, and it emphasised his point.

With club rugby losing its importance and profile, suburban connections aren't easy to spot anyway. School rugby recruitment also blurs the suburban lines.

But the big names in Auckland rugby — Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko Ioane et al — tend to be from central/eastern Auckland suburbs and/or schools.

To paraphrase my mate, rugby needed more good news stories out of the south and west.

Or to add my own words, the major sports figure out of south Auckland right now is boxer Joseph Parker.

I've long believed that Auckland is a blank footy canvas, just waiting for the Warriors to deliver. I still do, despite years of serious underachievement.

Rugby might be the default winner in Auckland for now, the code frontrunner due to a truce of incompetence.

The 2019 season certainly shapes as one of the most promising in Blues history. For the first time in a long time there is an air of genuine anticipation, a belief they may challenge for the title, that strong foundations will be laid by new coaches Leon MacDonald and Tom Coventry.

But will the public really care, will they really get in behind their team the way the city does when — on rare occasions — the Warriors fire up?

The credibility of the Super Rugby competition will be hit more heavily than usual next year by the over-arching crusade which is the All Blacks' bid to retain the World Cup.

Super Rugby has been turned into an All Black development system which dilutes fervour, and fervour isn't exactly a strong point in New Zealand rugby at the best of times.

In other words, we are still crying out for a genuine professional footy experience in Auckland involving a successful team, and only the Warriors can provide that.

Rugby is booming at test level, but is in a weird crisis in other places. And the patriotism - which can border on facism - associated with the All Blacks will become passé in the borderless digital age.

If only the NRL and the Warriors could get their act together. League is the real deal with transfer talk, proper rivalries, personalities and all the other fun stuff which drives professional sport around the world. New Zealand rugby will never provide that.

Game on. Long term, the Warriors will make league the dominant code in this city.

 

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