Rugby league is losing the numbers game. Andrew Sanders investigates what is happening among the Warriors of the future.
The New Zealand Warriors franchise is enjoying A1 health but the game of rugby league needs an urgent injection.
The diagnosis for the sport isn't life threatening but it is extremely disturbing.
In the past six years rugby league's numbers have fallen by 31%.
There were 40,899 players in 1996 compared to the official New Zealand Rugby League figure of 28,215 this year.
Numbers rose in 1997 and 1998, peaking at 43,985, meaning the decline over the past four years has been even more dramatic.
New Zealand Rugby League president Selwyn Pearson is understandably concerned.
"Of course whatever sport you are involved in it is disappointing to see your numbers going down," he said.
In areas such as Hawke's Bay and Gisborne-East Coast organised competitions have disappeared. And the sport is struggling in other regions such as Otago and Southland. Both districts have teams entered in the Mainland Super 10 competition but the structure below them is minimal.
The state of South Island league is a concern. It provides only one in five of the country's players. Strong league areas such as Canterbury and West Coast are only shadows of previous eras although total team numbers have increased by 10 to 235 this year.
Pearson hopes league will not become a sport played only in the North Island.
The president hopes the national slide has plateaued. New Zealand Rugby League Foundation general manager Peter Cordtz believes playing numbers have reached the sport's "maintenance level".
"It ticks along at this level and then when we actively drive our game we know what we can get it up because we have been there before," he said. "We are confident from here there is only one way to go."
Critics accuse the NZRL board and its predecessors of being tardy in addressing the slump in playing numbers. There are also suggestions previous boards have lived behind inflated figures.
Pearson, on one issue at least, is saying there has been enough talk by his board. The payment of affiliation fees is seriously abused. Several regions fail to pay them and these debts are being written off each year. And regions and clubs deliberately under-estimate numbers to reduce fees.
Pearson wants the fees system turned on its head. He wants them abolished, arguing the NZRL should be handing out a carrot rather than a whip. The total fees paid is estimated at a paltry $50,000 and Pearson believes a rewards scheme should be introduced for clubs which meet player growth targets.
A spinoff from the new system, which Pearson hopes can be introduced next season, would be a better assessment of how many people are playing league.
Cordtz concedes the sport's numbers aren't as accurate as it would like but he also emphasises league isn't a lone ranger on this issue.
While a senior player must be registered, the NZRL relies on a census of team numbers for any grade below under-18 level.
As a result, an under-15 Te Atatu player in west Auckland who also plays College A for Massey High School and in a Pacific Island Rugby League Association team could be counted three times.
Conversely, Cordtz said the junior counting system failed to capture all players in non-club competitions. He sees a need for national sports organisation Sport and Recreation New Zealand to bring a common system to how different sports count their players.
"We can be just as good as anyone else at counting every man, woman and child who touches a rugby league ball," he said. "This, however, does not necessarily allow us to accurately gauge our true position or measure progress. At the same time, we would not want to unfairly disadvantage our game by being the first to drop our pants."
League undoubtedly has been ravaged by a boom-bust scenario.
Cordtz said the introduction of the Lion Red Cup in 1994 and the arrival of the Auckland Warriors the following year sparked a surge in playing numbers.
Each cup franchise also had coaching staff who were responsible for developing the sport in their areas.
The sport boomed and finally league began to infiltrate the rugby-dominated secondary schools. At its peak, 131 of these schools were playing the sport. In 2002, the number has slumped to 57.
The trouble was that the development wasn't financially viable and sustainable and many of the development and school programmes collapsed.
In schools, especially, Cordtz said the letdown was immense. People remembered what league promised and failed to deliver.
"We know it has had quite an impact.
"We have had individual secondary schools, regional secondary school associations and even the National Secondary School Council tell us one of the barriers for us is the feeling they were let down by us previously because of the amount of resource and promises which were made at that time and which all fell over very quickly," he said.
"The amount of money which went into propping up that level of participation just isn't there now. You are talking about a period where we just about went bankrupt to support all that."
Pearson said he would hate to think the price per player cost of the boom era. "It would be absolutely unbelievable."
Reviving league in areas where it has disappeared is a prime Pearson goal, but he isn't prepared to throw money at a region "willy-nilly".
That, he said, has been tried and failed in the past. "Even having someone in a paid position didn't help us in Hawke's Bay."
HOWEVER, there are NZRL initiatives. One of the most successful has been the WAICOA Bay competition.
Sixteen teams from Waikato, Bay of Plenty and Coastline are playing in the premier competition. And it is bringing a focus to the regions. Pearson said the NZRL had invested close to $50,000 in setting up the competition and he was keen to look at using a similar format in another part of the country.
It has also helped fund or arranged the funding of development officers in a handful of districts. Pearson said other areas such as Tokoroa were helping themselves and arranging matches between the town's two clubs. Teams such as these wouldn't be counted in national figures.
Cordtz emphasised the importance of the game being truly national for national funding purposes. He doesn't believe the code will become solely a North Island sport, suggesting it had been a possibility before the Bartercard Cup and the Mainland Super 10 competition.
Latest figures support his belief.
Auckland continues to be the sport's stronghold with its 438 teams close to doubling the South Island tally. It provides 36% of the country's players. The city continues to be a production line for the Warriors and other NRL clubs but the line is getting shorter. Seven years ago there were 526 teams in the region.
The Auckland and national figures suggest it is time for a serious assessment of the sport's health and meaningful initiatives.