Rugby’s Greatest Team Confronts a Worrisome Prospect: Decline

But New Zealand has changed. While rugby still fascinates many, the number of men who play the game is dropping as interest in other sports grows. (Women’s rugby, by contrast, is growing fast.) In 2018, for example, the number of young people playing basketball for their school overtook the number playing rugby for the first time, according to School Sport New Zealand, which coordinates high school sports in the country. A separate government agency charged with promoting sports, Sport New Zealand, found in 2021 that only 7 percent of young New Zealanders regularly play rugby.

And for these remaining players, the modern school-level competition is dominated by a handful of elite schools that have positioned themselves as the only pathway to a professional career. Unable to compete, the rugby programs at many other schools have been neglected, or shut down. Some see that narrowing feeder system as the root of the problem.

Prestigious Super Rugby teams also often select players directly from that small group of elite high schools, skipping the club-level rugby that once built players’ resilience and exposed them to diverse playing styles. Instead, critics said, players today are groomed and developed to fit into what has become a hyper-professionalized model preferred by a small subset of teams.

“When you design your system to circumvent the natural progression that has worked for New Zealand for so many years, that is going to have consequences,” Stevenson said.

In the same way, the All Blacks’ centrality to New Zealand rugby also may have backfired. According to Cleaver the single-minded focus on producing players who fit one team “generated homogeneity throughout the entire system.” Unable to test themselves regularly against different playing styles, he said, top players lost flexibility and resilience. “Because we play the game the same throughout the country, we’re not very good at adjusting on the fly,” Cleaver said.

These struggles were most obvious in mid-July, when the team lost to Ireland in the third match of a home series. Even then, there was magic in the stadium — proof that the All Blacks are still, according to Cleaver, “the most talented group of players in the world when they have the ball.”

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