Peter Williams: The social implications of basketball overtaking rugby in school

Opinion 15/02/2019

By Peter Williams, Magic Mornings host

OPINION: We don’t talk a lot about sport on Magic Talk, but with the start of the Super Rugby season, I reckon it’s worth addressing an issue which is both a rugby matter, but also potentially a social matter.

While not necessarily a serious one, it might change the way we think about what has always been the National Game, or as a book was once called, "The Game for all New Zealand".

The figures which we had in our news bulletins this week should not have been a surprise, because the trend has been obvious for years. But it’s now official.

Rugby is no longer the most popular sport for boys in our secondary schools. Think about that. The country which has developed an international reputation as a breeder and producer of some of the greatest rugby players that ever walked on this planet now faces a brutal reality. The rugby factories which brought all those future stars to the surface - that is our high schools the length and breadth of the country - must face that rugby is now no longer the most popular.

That honour goes to basketball.

It’s easy to see why. Players can get the ball often, and without any tackling or collisions - the risk of being knocked out or getting concussion is much lower than in rugby. Even though it helps to be tall in basketball, there is a place in the sport for the short ass. Shorter players can be the slick mover, passer and playmaker. So it really is a game for all sizes, whereas in secondary school rugby, if you’re a 60 kilogram skinny white boy, the chances of you having fun playing rugby against a 120 kilogram Polynesian boy are not high.

Will we become mainly watchers of the game and not players of it?

There’s another pretty important issue too, especially in Auckland where it rains a lot in the winter. Sometimes, Saturday morning rugby might be postponed or cancelled for weeks in succession because the fields are such a bog and the councils and schools who own them won’t let games be played on them. So basketball, played indoors and where the facilities can be used for 18 hours a day, is a game that will never be called off because of the weather.

Combine that with the Steven Adams effect, the availability of NBA matches online and on TV here, and you have a high profile sport which is going to attract lots and lots of kids from all ethnic backgrounds. In time, I reckon it will be the real and actual “Game for all New Zealand.”

So the numbers that came out yesterday should come as no surprise to anyone .. the big questions are - does it threaten New Zealand’s domination of elite rugby around the globe, and if it does, should we be worried?

And does rugby losing its pre-eminent status as a participant sport among young males threaten to change the social fabric of the country?

To be honest, at the elite level of the game, I don’t think it matters a heck of a lot. I reckon there will always be enough high quality players emerging from our secondary schools to provide good Super Rugby teams and championship winning All Black sides. The issue is that the game is becoming less and less inclusive, the older you get.

Unless you’re identified as having the potential to be a first fifteen player when you’re about 13 or 14, you’re not going to be playing at 15. The question then is, how many potential stars, who might be late bloomers, and mature physically at an older age, slip through the gaps and never play rugby again?

But unless something is done by rugby administrators, fewer and fewer young men are going to be handling and oval ball in their teenage years and then as a young adult.

Basketball is easy to access online, writes Williams.

What does that mean for communities, both in the city and in the country, which always had a strong rugby club? Club rooms have often been the heart of communities, or at least a very important part of it.

Many of them have already become multi sports clubs anyway, but is a traditional and important part of the social fabric of our community at risk of being lost because of the decreasing number of young men playing rugby?

Amidst the big drop off in male rugby players of course, the game is attracting more and more female players. And that’s fantastic. In time rugby, especially Sevens, may rival netball as our most popular sport for women.

That won’t happen for a while, but the gap is closing.

But that still doesn’t solve the problem about participation of male teenagers and the huge drop off of boy rugby players between the ages of 14 and 17.

The problem seems to be that there isn’t much of an option for what we might call social rugby - either 15 a side games where the teams don’t need to have rigorous training and practice schedules, or seven a side games where you don’t need to train much at all. But you can play a couple of games in a day, or the game now just called touch, where there is no collision at all.

Touch is extremely popular, of course, but the fact that it is called “touch” means it's not really part of rugby and is controlled by an organisation completely independent of New Zealand Rugby.

So should there be much more of an effort to keep teenagers in what we still call The National Game? Or should we let our major sporting code go the way as it’s been in America? In high school sport there, there are only two football teams, the Varsity team for the older boys and the junior varsity team, one for the younger boys. If you’re not good enough to be in either of those teams, you simply don’t play. Same at university level. A minority play, a majority just watch, and football is one of the biggest industries in the United States, and is increasing globally.

Will New Zealand Rugby go that way? Will we become mainly watchers of the game and not players of it? Or should we be making a real effort to get teenage boys back playing the game, or at least a version of it?

Peter Williams is host of Magic Mornings, weekdays from 9am to midday.