North Harbour has again gone where no other Auckland union has before in a groundbreaking change to competition structure for schoolboys.
In one of a raft of changes Harbour is inviting clubs to compete in schoolboy grades.
The changes Harbour – including extending non-contact and weight-restricted grades – are to “keep pace with the new community, the new generation”, says chief executive David Gibson.
With the potential introduction of clubs into the school space, specifically the Youth 14 grade, the aim is less nebulous: to stem the tide of defections of school-age players, particularly boys.
“We have seen across the country and in our region, particularly with males between the ages of 12 to 15, a steady decline in participants and teams. We need to look at better ways to meet this generation’s needs. The changes we are making will hopefully be a shift in a good direction.”
Gibson acknowledged the idea did have some pushback from school principals who oversaw “robust” rugby programmes but the initiative was targeted mainly at the areas and schools that are struggling to field teams.
In many cases those secondary schools have clubs nearby that have long lamented that they develop players, send them off to high school and never get them back.
Gibson hopes that the idea will forge a greater collaboration between clubs and schools.
Boys will now have the option of playing weight-restricted rugby until the youth 16 level and non-contact rugby will be offered to secondary school-age boys and girls.
The rapidly changing demographics of the North Shore and the popularity of other sports, particularly basketball, have put the squeeze on the rugby in the region.
Harbour has been forced to be proactive. Two years ago they created headlines when they dissolved their junior rep programme including pulling out of the storied Roller Mills tournament, a move that elicited a visceral reaction among traditionalists in the rugby community.
This is unlikely to create the same angst but several unions will be closely watching to see how the introduction of clubs into the secondary school space works out.
The initiative has high-level support, with World Cup-winning coach Graham Henry acknowledging that shifts needed to be made in the community game.
“We need to make rugby more appealing for the vast majority of youth who won’t go on and may not want to go on to be elite athletes. Weight restricted offerings, collaboration between clubs and schools, and different rugby options are all positive shifts.”
All Black legend Ian Kirkpatrick, who has voiced his concerns on the state of the sport is heartened by the initiative to involve clubs and has also pointed to the work being done at his local Gisborne Boys’ High as evidence that rugby still has the power to engage youth.
Coming out of last year’s lockdown the school leadership decided to form as many teams as possible and create a Wednesday afternoon grade with modified rules to keep all the boys interested.
Kirkpatrick said the school discovered that when the game was played more on the schoolboys’ terms rather than the traditional structures, the interest was high.
“They had six teams of 24 players from a roll of around 800,” Kirkpatrick said. “The teams were named after old boys who had gone on to professional rugby like the Gear brothers and Charlie Ngatai. I went along and watched and it was fantastic.”
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