Do those who run rugby realise the dilemma they are in? I do not think they do. Talkback radio and my own experience supports that rugby in NZ in huge trouble. The kids are dropping out, the game is in a mess and people are incredibly disillusioned. There are many reasons:
1. The game is dangerous: this is an old chestnut that reduces interest from many parents, smaller kids. While huge efforts are made to improve it, it is still a game that causes injuries.
2. Polynesian dominance: this goes with 1. above. Skinny small kids will play in the weight based competitions, but the open grades are dominated by the Polynesians who mature early and dominate physically. This is not a racial criticism as they are to be congratulated for their talent. It is a real issue, causing many to give the game away.
3. Rule Changes: Rugby needs to look at the example of soccer, settle on a set of rules which they believe are the best possible rules for the sport and leave them! ELV's are the next round! I find it utterly frustrating that every year I have to relearn the game. What must it be like to change the game. Yet the tackled ball area is still a disaster. Time to stop all the changes.
4. Disillusionment with the All Blacks: Last years RWC was a total disaster. Graham Henry spent 3 years building the best team in the world and one of the best All Black teams of all time. He then inexplicably decided to do everything differently in the year of the cup. They did not play enough, did not develop combinations and were simply not ready for the moment. As expected Carter, McCaw and others are back to their dominant best this year. Then the NZRFU decided unbelievably to retain Henry and allow the world's best coach to go to the Wallabies. Ridiculous. Not to mention Gatland who has shown what he has in Wales! I agree with him that we are arrogant in terms of rugby. A huge number of NZers are fed up with rugby, its dominance, its arrogance and its failure to produce.
5. Other great sports options: There are now other great sports which NZers have discovered. League unlike rugby does not change its game year in year out and it is reaping the rewards. Netball is a great watch. Golf, triathlon, swimming, roller blading, cycling and other sports are being discovered by Kiwis. Soccer is increasingly attractive to the young and growing in its influence. Rugby is losing its dominance whether those in the game admit it or not.
6. Sky TV: While it is great to be able to watch continuous rugby through the weekend on channels set apart for it, the vast majority of NZers are not exposed to the game except delayed tests and the world cup. This is raising generations of NZers who do not know the game, do not understand it, do not enjoy it and have developed other interests. I will continue to argue that it is a major mistake for rugby to not be seen in peak hour with live matches on free to air TV. I see the netballers have gone with Sky for their new competition. This is a major mistake unless there are going to be key live matches on Free to Air. This is a major problem.
7. Breakdown of the traditions of the game: Rugby has made a fatal error as it has gone pro. It has turned its back on its traditions instead of building on them. For example, club rugby has been neglected and is breaking down. The traditional tour has been dumped for the repetitive limited competitions the Super 14 and Tri-Nations. The traditional provincial loyalties have been overridden with new "super" competitions that lack heart and loyalty. Similarly the NPC is now a second rate competition. It may now be too late to go back and the money-grubbing media have now got rugby in its grip, but this has led to a loss of support.
8. Season Length: The season is way too long, and too complicated. There is confusion among all but the faithful between the Super 14 and the NPC. What is the difference between the Crusaders and Canterbury? It is weird to all but those who know. Why on earth are they playing in the middle of the cricket season. Start in March! There needs to be 3 month window between the end of all rugby and the beginning of the next year. There needs to be a simplification of competitions. There needs to be progression from club to province to Super rugby to Internationals. These things MUST be resolved and resolve quick.
9. Loss of the best players: It is tragic to know that over the last few years so many brilliant players have left our shores and that they cannot play for the AB's again. Luke McAlistar is the classic example. For me, he is unquestionably the best second five in the world, yet we will not see him again while he is in Europe. Surely, he can be available for the AB's. To me it is time to let them play and become truly professional.
10. Other issues: My dissillusionment with rugby has increased with the problem of sport funding. My kids are high achievers and have sought funding for their sports careers, yet they continually miss out to rugby. Why? Rugby are loaded compared to other sports? This annoys me greatly.
So in conclusion, there is far less interest now and the interest is dropping. I for one am for the first time in my life (46 years old) unable to raise my interest. I couldn't care less who is winning and do not care whether the All Blacks are dominant or not. It is boring and I am fed up with the continuous changes. I have always loved cricket and rugby, but now my interest lies firmly in cricket. Cricket is undergoing a renaissance which is in no small part due to the decline in rugby. Rugby faces major challenges and it better get it sorted soon or it will no longer lay claim to being NZ's national sport, for me at least.