On the ball: Football strikes on rugby's NZ turf as kids vote with their feet video

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Traditional sporting choices are under attack as New Zealand societies undergo change.

Schools now offer dozens of sporting codes, and the ways in which young people and their parents lead their lives have shifted. John Edens reports on the changing face of sport, rugby, and its popular rival, football.

Rugby put New Zealand on the map.

In the last couple of decades, however, football and other sports have surged in popularity to become part and parcel of the Kiwi sporting fabric, leading many to ask the question: has rugby been dethroned as the national game?

Rugby is still a contender, of course, and overturning the popularity of the national game is, to put it mildly, unlikely.

Football and rugby have a longstanding rivalry and their spheres of influence form the backbone of On the Ball, a study focusing on changes to the mix of sports played by Kiwi kids, and adults.

All Blacks players join a post-match huddle with the Rolleston and Waihora Clubs Girls Rippa Rugby teams.

All Blacks players join a post-match huddle with the Rolleston and Waihora Clubs Girls Rippa Rugby teams.


There are now more of us, more sports at schools, there's more exposure on our screens, and we don't have as much time.

New Zealand Rugby

Rugby's a ripper of a game - Small Blacks TV examines the role of parents in the sport.

Football is club-led and mostly played at amateur level while rugby has a more established set of professional options.

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We still love sport, especially when we're little, but teens' interests quickly go beyond school work and sport, as any parent can tell you. Worldwide, research suggests a decline in participation in sport and recreation among populations.

Demographics, the ways in which we learn sport, friends, the fun factor and socialising, all contribute to a heady sporting brew. Netball still ranks as the most popular among secondary students by participation, with 42 per cent of secondary school girls involved, compared to 32 per cent of boys playing rugby union.

Nationally, walking and swimming are the most popular recreational activities.

But that's only part of a much bigger picture.

Star All White Winston Reid plays at the top level in England. Photo: Getty Images


Otago University Professor Steve Jackson, whose research includes the social and cultural analysis of sport, said new modified sports were getting more popular. 

"Everybody is pushing for exposure. It doesn't necessarily have an immediate effect but it provides exposure to New Zealand youth.

"What's changed is rugby's place in New Zealand culture and identity. It's as popular as ever. Rugby has some image problems and I do think that is slowly changing how parents decide what their kids do. They [the rugby organisations] are trying to get the new multicultural New Zealand interested in rugby.

"There's the injury numbers. Provincial rugby is struggling too, there are so many factors. So for example people need to work seven days a week. There's no time off. Single parents. There are kids who have to work while they go to university.

"People don't have the time, they don't want to make the commitment. There are rising costs.

"Football is the number one kids' sport. That's true in many countries because it's perceived as safe."


New Zealand Secondary Schools Football national administrator Leigh Perry runs the national and regional school tournaments.

Football was steadily increasing in popularity as parents were concerned about injuries in contact sports and high-profile scandals involving young rugby players, she said.

Other traditional sports were viewed as time-consuming by parents, football caused fewer injuries than rugby and, increasingly, games were being played on weekends.

"Football is reasonably easy to organise. Anybody can go out and put on a pair of boots and shinpads.

​"As parents you see some of those boys playing rugby and they're bigger than the average man. Parents are a big influence and children play sports [parents] played or had an interest in.

"The other influence is friends, that's a huge influence in schools. They want to play with their friends. Friends are probably the biggest. It's what they see on TV too. There's a lot of rugby for example on TV. There's a lot more football on TV.

"Physicality is a strong reason why parents influence the sports their children want to play."

Football Ferns star Abby Erceg. Photo: Photosport.nz 


Dr Barbara Cox MBE captained the New Zealand women's first international team when they beat Hong Kong in 1975 at the inaugural Women's Asia Cup. She was honoured for services to football in 1996.

Time management and changes in attitudes to gender were also part of the mix, Cox said.

"With 7-a-side they can come in for 40 minutes, meet with their friends and get their health fix. There's less loyalty to clubs now.

"Men these days no longer have that freedom to work all week and go and play sport all afternoon on a Saturday. Men are much more aware and I've seen a change in that.

"We've got the stats that show rugby is declining and if you talk to parents... there's concern with head injuries. There's concern about the culture of drinking and drugs and violence. There's all of those aspects. There's concern about male culture which needs to be changed. Fear of being knocked over by a big player is paramount among parents.

"On the other hand rugby does a lot of very valuable things that reinforce what a great game it is. Then there's the money aspect as for many people whose talent is their body the All Blacks are probably the best. It's a great game, it has opportunities but then so has football, especially for women.

"Women's sevens, I think it's going to sweep the country."


Massey University Pro Vice Chancellor Distinguished Professor Paul Spoonley​ - whose son is footballer Jason Spoonley - said a noticeable change in sporting participation and interest levels could be traced to circa 2012, particularly in Auckland.

Some caution was needed when interpreting data and trends, he said.

Between 2009 and 2012, the global financial crisis slowed economies, dampened immigration, and squeezed credit.

In New Zealand, since 2012 or so, the country has enjoyed one of its most sustained periods of population growth, with the majority of immigrants arriving into Auckland from China, India, and the Philippines.

"It's not simply participation in but the interest in rugby is going down.

"If you look at Auckland leisure and sport activities, rugby comes in at number 20," Spoonley said.

"If you drive around Auckland on a Sunday you see a lot of informal sporting activities. They're not registered players or clubs - they just turn up and play.

"The registered players gives you a good indication but doesn't provide a complete picture."

One of the possible reasons - apart from a population shift it's difficult to pinpoint causes - was a move away from organised, formal sport on a Saturday and new variations, such as rippa rugby, sevens and futsal - indoor five-a-side football.

Other growth sports are golf, basketball, table tennis, and badminton.

"The same is true in football.

"It's that more informal, short, sharp game, attractive to people working. We're very time precious and we're starting to see the rise of more informal sports you can work around education or work."


New Zealand general manager of provincial union and community rugby Brent Anderson said there was growth overall and a slight decline in teenage players. There was a range of reasons for the shift and it was hard to pinpoint any overriding cause for change, he said.

Anderson said registered players were counted once so, for example, a teenager who plays rugby for their school and their local club is one registered player. Provincial unions receive registered player-based funding from NZR.

New Zealand's demographics were changing, he said.

"Many schools will now be offering more than 30 options. Some of them do it because they are not succeeding in a mainstream sport. There are issues around how some kids are leading their lives. More kids want after-school jobs.

"Those sorts of things are what we call the push away factors."

Kiwi Gayle Broughton is tackled by Australian Alicia Quirk. Photo: Getty Images

Game time, the quality of coaching and having meaningful competitions among sides with similar abilities were other factors.

"If you're in a competition so one team is winning a heap, being on the end of a big points difference as a teenager is not a lot of fun.

"We're time poor. People don't want to be as involved as they have been traditionally."

To deal with the changes, NZR is investigating the provision of different modes, such as sevens, 10-a-side, and shorter games, but this balancing act needed careful consideration so the heartland of rugby was not alienated, Anderson said.

There are around 44,000 teenage rugby players, 33,000 at secondary school level.

In Auckland, with its significant population of Polynesian players and a large number of players, the schools and unions were able to divide players into weight classes, which does not happen in other regions.

Each union had its own regional challenges, he said. For example, the Wairarapa tackled having a smaller player base by joining the Manawatu competition and parents accepted travelling as a way to promote meaningful competition. Others installed artificial turf, allowing more games and fewer cancellations.

Tackling was introduced at different ages depending on maturation levels, with, for example, lifting in lineouts introduced from 14. Learning to tackle starts around age 8, but this can differ depending on the school or club.

"For some other kids, the possibility of injury or tackling the bigger guys doesn't help," Anderson said.

"What are the motivations? Fun and enjoyment with mates, coaching, meaningful competition, getting game time and an equal share of resources.

"We're comfortable with our popularity. The community game is seen as very different from the professional game. Ninety-eight to ninety-nine per cent of our players are at community level."


New Zealand Football technical director Rob Sherman said the All Whites' success at the 2010 World Cup and achievements by the Football Ferns made a big difference. The Wellington Phoenix also had a profile and brought the professional game closer to home.

"All these achievements at an elite level have a massive impact in terms of increasing the profile of the sport and inspiring young people to become involved in football.

"We're the global game which means there is a huge range of opportunities offshore. There's professional and US collegiate opportunities for both boys and girls. It's a safe, fun environment because things like concussion aren't as much of a problem in our sport.

"It's a simple, easy game to play and the injury risk is low, especially when children are young. One of the great things about football is that it provides opportunities away from the traditional format. For example, futsal, 7-a-side social leagues and things of that nature. It's not just about the elite talent strand, football is accessible to so many people."

Sherman said the "whole of football" plan - a national standard approach to training and development - was evolving and the organisation's focus on youth launched recently.

"Facilities and resources are always an issue and we are competing with all other sports for the funding required for progress in this area.

"In some parts of the country, particularly the Auckland area, finding enough fields for all the matches is a problem because green spaces for sport are at a premium.

New Zealand Football community director Cam Mitchell said the turning point was the national standard opt-in approach in the whole of football plan.

"We have had 26 per cent growth in junior football since the launch of the plan and 27 per cent growth in youth football while senior participation has remained static, which bucks national trends.

"In most other sports, senior participation is declining. The plan is not just about players, it's an inclusive plan for everybody. For example, we now have really solid pathways in place for both coach and referee development.

"The plan also looks to build the capability of clubs because football in New Zealand has always been based on a club-led model. Clubs, and the unsung heroes that volunteer within them, are the heart and soul of our sport. But the communities that bind New Zealand are changing and it is important that our clubs evolve as well.

"We have over 500 clubs, plus we've also got the parallel pathways through schools, so we have both club and school opportunities.

"The changing demographics of New Zealand are another important factor because the country is currently experiencing high levels of immigration and most people arriving are from countries where football is the number one sport. Football remains the only truly global game so any influx of migrants from overseas is likely to have a positive impact."

It was also important to mention women's football and futsal. Other sports were modifying their game but football already has established versions, futsal, beach soccer and and so on. It was also possible to play rugby over the age of 50.


Providing a complete picture of how many people, young and old, play a particular sport is not possible. There are good estimates, surveys, and registered player numbers, plus school data, but no two organisations record participation in the same way.

Broadly, according to the numbers, there are more rugby players than football players, but football's popularity is increasing. 

Schools have played a major part, changing the face of sport in New Zealand by offering more choices, and there are dozens of options from archery to yachting.

 - Stuff


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