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Rugby league numbers down but not dire

NZ NewswireNZ Newswire 29/11/2016 Steve Zemek

Rugby league's state bodies are refusing to press the panic button on participation numbers, despite the NRL's willingness to go to war with clubland over declining numbers.

ARL Commission chairman John Grant is fighting for his survival after reneging on a club funding arrangement, citing the need to address several key issues, mainly the decline in player numbers.

The NRL and Grant on Tuesday again refused to give firm numbers, however the NSW, Queensland and Country rugby league associations all said while numbers were down, there was plenty of silver lining.

Across all three of the major associations, there is a broad trend towards a slight drop in numbers, driven by declining male participation but largely offset by exponential growth in the women's game.

According to the NSWRL, for the 2016 season, its overall participation dropped from 40,824 in 2015 to just over 39,000.

NSWRL general manager of football Barrie-Jon Mather said while males players were down by 1000-1500, about 500-1000 females had picked up the game.

He said according to a major study of attitudes, the rate of attrition was being driven by three main factors: the standard of coaching, poor sportsmanship and the unevenness of competitions.

He refused to call the situation dire and said there was plenty of positive work being done around social and women's football that was turning the tide.

"The figures don't tell the whole story," Mather said.

"In terms of registered participants, people who play rugby league every week, that's down but people who engage in the sport, and maybe dip in and dip out, that's up for the year.

"We've got lots of people interested in playing; we've just got to work on how to convert them into people who want to play on a regular basis."

The QRL said it had 60,794 registered players in 2016, down from 61,291 the year before with a big jump in female numbers (3405 to 3832).

There was also an increase in participation in the QRL Northern Division (13,422 to 13,607) driven largely by North Queensland's 2015 NRL premiership win.

The NSW Country Rugby League (CRL) said its numbers had fallen overall, a drop of about two per cent to 56,000, with men down one per cent.

CRL chief executive Terry Quinn said women's numbers climbed from 5000 to 7000 and they were expecting further growth with three women's tag competitions to start in 2017.

"We've noticed since registrations opened up in November, there were 5000 registered already which was probably 2000 up on this time last year," Quinn said.

"Our numbers are pretty stable and a lot of it's due to female participation. It's not too bad at the moment, though we don't want to have any downturn at all."

In its 2015 annual report, the NRL trumpeted the fact player numbers across rugby league and touch football were up six per cent on the previous year to 1.4 million, a growth of 100,000.

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