Sky started broadcasting first XV rugby to celebrate the talent and tradition of the high school game. But instead of strengthening New Zealand rugby, this move might have accidentally broken it.
This story first appeared on The Bounce, a Substack newsletter by Dylan Cleaver.
England rugby coach Eddie Jones was back in the headlines this week for saying that the private school system, where the sport has traditionally been strong in England, produces “cosseted players” who “lack resolve” when things are going poorly. He was rebuked for those comments by, among others, Clive Woodward, who was educated by the Royal Navy on the HMS Conway, a stone frigate “school ship” in the north of Wales.
I’m not sure there’s a lot of merit to Jones’ outburst, which could be painted as an upstart Aussie taking a stab at the British ruling class, but it did pique my interest because of my unscientific belief that the rise and rise of independent fee-paying schools in the first XV scene has had a deleterious effect on New Zealand rugby.
Not because it produces cosseted players who lack resolve, but because of the Laws of Unintended Consequences.
Back in 2009, Sky started regularly televising first XV games, a fairly benign decision that aimed to highlight the wonderful talent and tradition in the school game. Some schools, mostly fee-paying but not all, saw it as the perfect marketing opportunity – to highlight their schools and hostels, and mobilize wealthy alumni networks. To do that effectively, they needed strong first XVs.
An “arms race” developed – not my words, but those of Christchurch Boys’ High School principal Nic Hill. “Over-professionalisation of sport is not helping, it’s not helping the game, it’s not helping the boys, it’s undermining the values we’re supposed to be about. We’re trying to create better kids. The arms race in secondary school sport is not creating better kids, it’s not actually creating better rugby players.”
Accusations of rorting the rules became the bitter language of schoolboy rugby, particularly in Auckland where boycotts were threatened and one school was temporarily kicked out of the 1A competition due to their recruitment policy. “It’s a serious issue and it needs a serious response,” Mount Albert Grammar School principal Patrick Drumm said of banishing St Kentigern College. “We needed to take a strong leadership stand as a recruitment strategy like this is not what school sport should be about. The integrity and credibility of the competition is challenged by targeting elite players from around the country. We felt the time was right to try to have a moral and ethical discussion and while we had a positive meeting with King’s [College] that wasn’t the case with St Kents.”
While the squabbling could come across as petty and at times reeked of jealousy from the state schools that were losing their primacy, it obscured an important fact: the talent produced by schools was getting ever more thin and homogenised.
That might sound counter intuitive. If more schools, particularly wealthy schools, were trying to get better, shouldn’t that raise all boats?
No, it actually had the opposite effect.
A select few schools that had either the resources or the historic back story became semi-professional first XV environments. The rest gave up. This was predicted by then Kelston Boys’ High School principal Brian Evans. “There was a time when you’d get All Blacks out of [low-decile state schools]. I think that will become a thing of the past, unfortunately. [The] sport is simply dying in some schools. It’s expensive and they don’t have the resources to compete so they give up – and I am not going to sit here and blame them.”
The amount of secondary schoolboy rugby teams in the past decade has plummeted. Some schools in Auckland with decent-sized rolls no longer field a single team in any grade.
Those that are coming out of the moneyed programs are good players with good physiques who have had good coaching. I would describe them as perfectly fine off-the-rack professional players in waiting. They’re not weak or cosseted as Jones suggests, but they rarely have the sort of x-factor that is then honed and matured at club and then provincial level.
New Zealand’s massive advantage over every other country has been an almost equalitarian system that could take a can’t-miss schoolboy star like Andrew Mehrtens at a traditional powerhouse like Christchurch Boys’ High, and throw them into a club and provincial system playing with and against players from places as wide and varied as Mataura High (Justin Marshall), Kāpiti College (Christian Cullen), Waiopehu College (Carlos Spencer), Mahurangi College (the Brooke brothers), Cargill High (Jeff Wilson), Hastings BHS (Josh Kronfeld ) and Mangere College (Frank Bunce).
Those days might not be gone, but they’re going fast. I didn’t realize just how precarious it was until one day a few years ago when I was talking to the late, great Geoff Moon, a MAGS coach who had cut his coaching teeth at low-decile Aorere College.
He said that there wouldn’t be a first XV anywhere in the country from a generation ago that could live with the best teams in Auckland’s 1A competition nowadays, but that wasn’t a good thing. Yes, the teams were better he said, but, “In the 90s, we produced better players. The competition was even. There were limited scholarships. You went to your school and that’s who you played for. There’s not as many good players coming out of school as there were in the 90s.”
There was an incredible supply chain to the All Blacks which developed over 100 years. Club to school to club to NPC to (latterly) Super Rugby to the All Blacks.
That’s been disrupted and even circumvented. No self-respecting first XV star wants to slum it in club rugby now, most would rather not even play NPC. In fact, what the professionalising of the school game has done is implicitly tell boys (and girls too will soon learn this the more the women’s game is monetised) that if they haven’t “made it” by Year 12 or 13, then you ‘re done with the game.
It was not an intended or even anticipated consequence of television and essentially professionalising schoolboy rugby. But with Super Rugby teams and academies contracting straight out of school, I don’t know how you can argue that it’s not having a negative impact on the All Blacks now. (And we haven’t even got issues of young men and women whose sense of self is twinned with their sporting prowess).
Eddie Jones wants to blow up the English school rugby system. It might be even more urgent here.
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