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'I worry': All Blacks great's fears for future of rugby

Publish Date
Tue, 2 Apr 2024, 3:21PM
Julian Savea of Moana Pasifika scores a try in front of empty seats in Hamilton. Photosport
Julian Savea of Moana Pasifika scores a try in front of empty seats in Hamilton. Photosport

'I worry': All Blacks great's fears for future of rugby

Publish Date
Tue, 2 Apr 2024, 3:21PM

Former All Blacks captain Tana Umaga wants to see crowds return to rugby

Earlier this year when Julian Savea broke the Super Rugby try-scoring record, you could almost count the spectators in the stands.

What should have been a monumental moment in the competition’s history was disappointingly seen by just a handful of supporters.

Among the few who saw Savea’s feat live was Moana Pasifika coach Umaga, who is concerned the game is losing more and more eyeballs.

“I worry about our game sometimes, how it’s going and obviously the numbers,” he said.

“I love the game and I want to make sure that we’re doing everything that we can to keep it, grow it, or somehow bring people back to it because it is a great game.”

The 74-test All Black said that everyone - referees, players, coaches and fans - had a part to play.

“We have got to think about the product we are putting out. We want people to come to the games because as we’ve seen, those numbers aren’t as good as they used to be in the old days.”

Umaga said he had experienced firsthand what rugby could do for people.

“We need the people in our communities behind it and we have to make sure that we’re going out there and giving them what they want.”

With the recent back and forth between NZ Rugby and the provincial unions, Umaga feared for the future of the NPC, citing how crucial the grassroots game was to NZ’s success at the international level.

“We have just got to make sure that we keep the essence of what rugby is about, that’s our point of difference. That’s what makes us unique, and we don’t want to lose that. We don’t want to be following anyone else, we need to be innovative about what we do and trying to understand what people want so that we can give it to them.”

Umaga’s side, in particular, is struggling to attract an audience, not helped by the fact they are still without a permanent home base in 2024.

“Obviously we’d all love to have a home but we know how it works with us and at the moment it’s hard to find that. We are still finding our feet. We are still young as a club, and we will get there, we represent Samoa and Tonga but at this stage, we can’t be based there, obviously infrastructure-wise.”

However, Umaga remains pragmatic about the situation.

“This is where we’re at and some people don’t want us here in Auckland, so we’ve just got to make do with what we’ve got and we’ve just got to keep working. We’re used to it, this is who we are, we’re voyagers, travellers. Our ancestors lived on the sea. So we’re adaptable.”

Umaga said in a dream scenario the side would be based in the Pacific full-time, however, admits there’s a lot that needs to happen before that comes to fruition.

“Obviously everyone would love that but I think the actual realities of that a long way away, we have just got to be realistic. That’s the reality of life.”

Umaga and his men helped celebrate the launch of the Pacific Rugby Hall of Fame at the weekend, a festival held prior to Moana meeting the Blues at Eden Park.

“I think everyone knows what the Pacific has done for rugby, we’re really entrenched in the fabric of rugby so it’s huge for us, we talk extensively about who we represent, our family, our ancestors, our people and so to have something as significant as the Pasifika Hall of Fame, I think it’s just no timely for us to understand that we’re here because we’ve stepping on the shoulders of some giants and we want to give back to those people as well.”

Umaga said the influence is evident in teams throughout the world now through second generations.

“Now people are seeing the pathway of rugby to make the voyage across seas and end up in Europe and they’ve stayed there.

“They’ve had children, and then now that they’re representing their country that they’ve lived in yet they’re still very proud Pacific Islanders and they know where their heritage started.”

Despite his fears surrounding its future, Umaga believes fans are seeing a better quality of rugby in 2024.

“Everyone’s coming closer. It means that there are more competitive games and hopefully people can see that this is something they want to watch and be a part of and I think that’s a great thing because it just builds the level of rugby.”

He noted the resurgence occurring across the ditch.

“The Australian teams have really stepped up. Obviously, they’re not happy with what happened with the Wallabies last year and now every team, every coach, every player realises that they don’t want to be there again. We don’t want them to build up too far too much,” he joked, “but it can only be good for rugby.”

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