Rugby World Cup: Toughest Battle for the ‘All-Blacks’ –

Auckland, New Zealand

You don’t have to follow rugby to know that the national team of New Zealand, the All Blacks, are the undisputed kings of this sport. This team (its nickname refers to the traditional color of its uniforms) plays with a combination of finesse and physical prowess few can match.

Enlarge Image
Associated Press

New Zealand’s Ma’a Nonu during the Rugby World Cup.

Since 1903, New Zealand has won almost 80% of its matches and has held the world’s top ranking for more time than every other rugby nation combined.

But even as the All Blacks steam through the opening rounds of the 2011 Rugby World Cup, this team may have finally found an opponent it can’t overcome: soccer.

Here in the land where rugby has long been considered a civic religion, there are signs New Zealand may be the latest country to fall for the seemingly irresistible charms of the beautiful game. Last year, New Zealand’s national soccer team, the All Whites, captured the country’s imagination—and about three million television viewers in a nation of just over four million—as it nearly advanced to the knockout round of the FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
Podcast: The Sports Retort

This week’s Sports Retort tackles the question of whether the reeling Red Sox could not just make the playoffs, but advance there. Plus NFL and college football picks and a fairly strained attempt to compare the podcast to “I Love Lucy.”

The Wellington Phoenix, the country’s sole professional soccer club, also made headlines by reaching the semifinals of the Australasian A-League for the first time. It drew a larger average crowd than the city’s storied rugby team.

Now, soccer’s growing popularity, combined with record levels of youth participation, has led some to suggest that rugby’s position as New Zealand’s national pastime is weakening, raising questions about how a country with roughly the same population as Washington, D.C., can continue its unlikely domination of a global sport.

“We are striving to maintain our numbers,” said Steve Tew, chief executive of the New Zealand Rugby Union. “We are in competition [with soccer] but… we don’t begrudge what the All Whites did at all.”

This isn’t the first time rugby’s position has been threatened by the rise of soccer. In the 1980s, New Zealand’s first appearance at the FIFA World Cup in 1982 coincided with a period of disenchantment with rugby, caused by a spate of spinal injuries and the All Blacks’ controversial 1981 series against South Africa, which was bedeviled by anti-apartheid protests (one of which forced the cancellation of a game in Hamilton).

Enlarge Image
Getty Images

All Whites soccer huddle.

“Soccer made huge gains and rugby faced a crisis,” said Bob Howitt, the author of 13 books on New Zealand rugby and its players.

The soccer boom didn’t last. New Zealand hosted the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987 and the All Blacks went on to win the title in dominating fashion, rekindling the country’s love affair with rugby. In the next decade, the advent of professionalism (national-team players had long been barred from playing professionally) and the establishment of the southern hemisphere’s Super Rugby competition cemented the sport’s position.

This time, there are signs that soccer’s recent progress may endure. The sport has long had one of the country’s highest participation rates, but over the last decade youth numbers have been steadily rising—and there are signs the pace is accelerating. Since 2000, the number of kids registered with soccer clubs has grown from 65,000 to more than 100,000, according to New Zealand Football. In the 12 months since New Zealand played at the 2010 World Cup, those numbers have soared by almost 5%, making it the fastest-growing sport.

At the same time, rugby’s position as New Zealand’s national pastime is weakening. A UMR Research poll last year found rugby was still the country’s most popular sport, but the percentage of New Zealanders who were “fairly or very interested” in rugby was just 60%—the lowest since tracking began in 1993.

Grant McKavanagh, chief executive of New Zealand Football, says the old attitude that soccer is for wimps and that real men play rugby no longer applies. “When I was growing up, you were always a little worried about mentioning the sport you played,” he said. “Now you can say it with pride.”

To some rugby fans, New Zealand’s newfound passion for soccer is tough to fathom. While the All Blacks are ranked No. 1 in the world and are expected to win every time they step on a rugby pitch, the country’s soccer team has a world ranking of 89 and returned home to a ticker tape parade because they went to the World Cup in South Africa and didn’t lose any games. (The All Whites drew with Italy, Paraguay and Slovakia but failed to advance from group play.)

Then there’s the fact that this rugged sport has been tied to the country’s national identity and culture ever since its introduction here in the 19th Century. Some say the All Blacks, through their inclusion of Polynesian players and embrace of Maori traditions, have even helped bind the nation together.

“The physicality of rugby, you just don’t get it in soccer,” said Layne Greensill, a 46-year-old farmer from New Zealand’s North Island, who plans to take in 28 games in nine stadiums during the seven-week World Cup.

Soccer’s surge could have some unsettling consequences for the country’s indomitable rugby team. Officials are conscious that the growing participation rate in youth soccer could slowly begin to affect the talent pool available to the All Blacks. New Zealand already has fewer than 30,000 professional players, according to the International Rugby Board. By contrast, France has more than 110,00 and England has roughly 166,000.

“We are hopeful that one of the spinoffs with having the [World Cup] here is that more people will be interested in the game both in watching it, playing it and coaching it,” said Tew, of the New Zealand Rugby Union.

In that respect, the signs are positive so far. Nearly 500,000 people have attended World Cup games already and even this week’s match between Tonga and Japan—hardly the hottest ticket—drew a sell-out crowd. The numbers of people at the fan zone in Auckland on the tournament’s opening night were so large that parts of the city had to be shut down.

As good as that sounds, New Zealand rugby officials know there is a downside that comes with hosting the world’s foremost international rugby tournament.

“If we don’t win, as we know from experience, we deal with a backlash,” said Tew. “Interest wanes in the game generally and we effectively have to build our way back.”