Time South Pacific, 11/12/2001 Pacific Beat section

Renowned for their uncompromising style, New Zealand rugby players would be the last group that many would dare call timid. But that's the slur in a local magazine piece that notes a dwindling white presence in the country's best teams. Maoris and Pacific Islanders comprise 17% of New Zealand's population, yet last winter they made up more than half the players in its four provincial sides--and four-fifths of those in Auckland's premier tournament. And for the first time in the only country where rugby is the national sport, more people now play soccer than the brutal 15-man game.

Calling the phenomenon "white flight" -- a term used by Sports Illustrated to describe comparable trends in American sports -- New Zealand Rugby quotes coaches as saying that white players at all levels can't match the Polynesians' size and strength, and that worried parents are steering their sons to gentler sports.

While few dispute that the number of white players is falling, the charge that fear is the cause has upset many. "We think it's a load of bollocks," says New Zealand Rugby Union spokesman Matt McIlraith, who adds that the Kiwis' world champion under-19 and under-21 sides are predominantly white. Caucasian players of various standards deny being afraid of any opponent, and argue that Polynesians can be demoralized by preemptive aggression. Former Australian Test player Peter FitzSimons says he finds all such talk distasteful, but adds: "I wouldn't say it had anything to do with their ethnicity, but there's no doubt that the two hardest men I ever faced on a football field -- Wayne Shelford and Zinzan Brooke -- were Maoris."

While sport remains an avenue out of poverty for underprivileged groups, New Zealand society is becoming more "individualized" and mature, says Otago University physical education lecturer Douglas Booth: "Why would you want to spend your leisure time being yelled at by some baboon of a coach when you can go out and have a latte or visit a museum?"