New Zealand rugby great Wayne Smith has urged a return to afternoon matches amidst changes to help a declining game avoid a disaster.
Smith, one of the most astute brains in New Zealand rugby and a passionate All Black as a player, coach and assistant coach, has aired some concerns in a wide-ranging interview with international website RugbyPass.com.
Smith, who also has coaching experience in Europe and Japan, is worried that New Zealand stars are heading north to rich clubs at an increasingly younger age and he also has major fears about the Kiwi grassroots game.
Empty Stadiums and the demise of club rugby haven’t escaped Smith, one of the most successful coaches in the professional era with stunning runs at the Crusaders and Chiefs to complement his All Blacks efforts that include helping win two World Cups.
“If you don’t try things, it’s going to be a disaster,” Smith said.
“Maybe we’ve got to look at things like going back to back-yard rugby, kids going to academies at too young an age, playing games at 14:30 on a Saturday and Sunday so families can go along and watch, maybe changing the structure of our domestic season,” Smith said.
“The community used to revolve around the rugby club. It doesn’t anymore and probably never will again. Rugby clubs are under huge pressure to keep going, they don’t get their provincial players for the whole competition, they never get their Super Rugby players and they never see an All Black. Somehow reversing that trend would probably be good for communities. Unless we try things it’s just going to keep declining.
“New Zealand Rugby are cognisant of some of these issues, clearly, and at least they’re putting focus groups together and starting to have discussions about what the solutions are. We’ve always been good at adapting, adjusting and overcoming, so this is just another challenge for us.”
Smith, with his knowledge of the game in both hemispheres sensed a change that was threatening New Zealand.
“There’s a player drift north, clearly, and it’s getting younger and younger,” Smith told RugbyPass.com.
“There’s an economic drift, the stadiums are full, so there’s an interest drift. We [New Zealand] fill stadiums for the All Blacks but that’s about it. Whereas you go to Franklin’s Gardens [Northampton’s home ground] any given Saturday at 14:30 and you can’t get a ticket.
“Strategically, we’re going to have to be really smart because we can’t meet the changes economically. It’s always been that creating team environments that are exciting, creating competitions that are exciting.”
Back to the player drain, Smith admitted the new generation had a new way of thinking.
“The lure of the All Blacks jersey, have always been enough to retain most of the players, but that’s changing.
“It’s the younger generation, kids going at 19, 20, 21, who have shown talent, that’s where the drain is going to hurt us.”