But New Zealand has changed. Although rugby still appeals to many, the number of men playing the game is declining as interest in other sports grows. (Women’s rugby, by contrast, is growing rapidly.) For example, in 2018 the number of youngsters playing basketball at their school surpassed the number of rugby players for the first time, according to School Sport New Zealand, which coordinates secondary school sport. in country. Sport New Zealand, a separate government agency tasked with promoting the sport, found in 2021 that only 7 percent of young New Zealanders play rugby regularly.
And for those remaining players, today’s collegiate level competition is dominated by a few elite schools positioned as the only path to a professional career. Without competition, rugby programs at many other schools have been neglected or closed. Some see narrowing of the feeder system as the root of the problem.
Prestige Super Rugby teams also often select players directly from a small pool of elite secondary schools, skipping the club-level rugby that once honed players’ stamina and exposed them to different playing styles. Instead, critics said, today’s players are groomed and developed to fit what has become a hyper-professionalized model favored by a minority of teams.
“When you design your system to prevent the natural progression that has worked in New Zealand for so many years, there are consequences,” Stevenson said.
Similarly, the All Blacks’ central role in New Zealand rugby may have backfired. According to Clever, a dedicated focus on producing players who fit the same team “created uniformity throughout the system.” He said that by not being able to regularly test themselves against different playing styles, the best players lost flexibility and stamina. “Because we play the game the same across the country, we’re not well-adjusted on the fly,” Cleaver said.
This struggle was most evident in mid-July when the team lost the third game of the home series against Ireland. Even then, there was magic in the stadium – proof that the All Blacks, according to Cleaver, are still “the most talented group of players in the world when they have the ball”.