Grassroots rugby in New Zealand

New Zealand’s national love affair with rugby starts at grassroots level.

So ingrained is the national sport that many babies are sporting black shirts with the silver fern before they can walk, and toddlers often learn to kick a ball before they can talk.

For many it’s the start of a life-long involvement in a sport that is so entwined with the New Zealand way of life that it’s almost a barometer of the health of the nation.

New Zealand’s national game

On May 14, 1870 the first rugby game in New Zealand was played between Nelson College and Nelson Football Club. Today, rugby is New Zealand's national game, and forms an integral part of Kiwi culture and identity.

New Zealand’s national side, the All Blacks, have become the most feared opponent in the sport. This international success is built on the strength of grassroots rugby - the schools, clubs, and representative teams of New Zealand's 26 provincial unions.

National psyche

One reason for the significance of the sport in the national psyche is the way that it developed historically, having been imported from the United Kingdom then quickly becoming a grassroots pursuit of small communities.

Former All Black John Kirwan believes rugby was a defining aspect of the identity New Zealand forged for itself as a young country, independent of the United Kingdom.

"New Zealand produces rugby people because it’s part of our heritage, it’s how we identified ourselves when we detached from England, so it’s really entrenched in our psyche," says Kirwan.

Early days

The All Blacks were originally a touring team, selected from clubs around the country to travel and play against international sides.

National teams from other countries visiting New Zealand would not confine themselves to the big cities; most regions would host an international match.

So the rugby park and the rugby club became key institutions of both the provinces and the society.

School & club rugby

Today rugby is the most viewed and the most played sport in New Zealand, and numbers playing at community level are on the increase.

Every Saturday, well over 100,000 players, big and small, lace up their boots and run onto rugby fields throughout New Zealand to play school and club rugby.

Some fields are no more than farm paddocks, others are hallowed grounds that have witnessed many of the greatest games in history between teams at the pinnacle of their sport.

While the All Blacks might be the national heroes with enviable international profiles, all can trace their grounding in the sport to early school games or backyard beginnings.

Most retain a strong link with their communities, continuing to play provincial rugby as well as meeting their extensive All Black commitments.

Rugby in the community

Community rugby thrives on input from a network of volunteers and school players are mostly coached by parents and willing teachers.

The Saturday morning ritual in rugby-playing households provides a valuable insight into everyday life in New Zealand- children scrambling out of bed on a cool winter’s morning, rummaging for their kit, lining up for a hearty breakfast and heading off to the local rugby ground with proud and patriotic parents who take the competition very seriously.

Small-town rugby clubs are often the hub of the community and provide a ready venue for social gatherings.

Changing times

Rugby is aware it needs to change with the times and the NZRU says moves are afoot to address the tide of socio-economic and demographic change.

Asian immigration into areas like Auckland has created a challenge as many migrants had no history with rugby.

"We've got to try to make the game appealing and relevant to those people when they don't have a past history or association with it," says Anderson.

In some regions changes are being made to accommodate players' commitments. Massey University in the Manawatu has started running 10-a-side evening competitions and in Wanganui, First XV and U19 matches are sometimes played at night to help free up players' weekends.

Other unions are investigating the use of artificial turfs so matches can be played every night of the week at one facility, rather than being scattered around different locations on Saturday afternoons.

NZRU community plan

The NZRU has a community plan which describes rugby as "part of the fabric of New Zealand society", and Anderson says he is determined to see it remains that way.

"We want people to grow up and have a love and passion for the game. The best way of gaining that is for them to be involved in it."

Some regions are taking the initiative to involve young people in money making ventures to benefit the sport.

In the rugby strong-hold region of Taranaki the local rugby union has taken over a farm to help finance community rugby.

The rugby union is leasing the 170-hectare Manaia dairy farm for three-and-a-half years, relying on community support to stock and run the farm, to raise funds.

An advisory group of local farmers, agricultural consultants and stock and station agents will oversee the farm operation offering employment opportunities for younger rugby players.

Grassroots Rugby on TV

New Zealand even has a GrassRoots Rugby television channel, and producer Graeme Veitch says it’s club rugby that forms the foundation of all New Zealand rugby, with clubs serving valuable roles as community centres throughout the country.

"Those at the top of their game had to start somewhere and that’s where their local Rugby Club has played a large part in their development as a player and a person," says Veitch.

"The total dedication by thousands of young, and not so young, men and women to attend training on cold winter evenings can only be admired by all … then they turn out weekend after weekend to do battle on the rugby fields of our country to uphold the pride and tradition of their club," says Veitch.

He says it is not about the winning or losing, or the hope of one day being an All Black but "simply about playing the great game".

The GrassRoots Rugby channel screens all 21 weeks of the New Zealand club rugby season.