Code struggling to break into schools

By Ben Guild

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Luke Cairns-Nelson in action for the Otumoetai Eels Under-15 team.
Luke Cairns-Nelson in action for the Otumoetai Eels Under-15 team.

The list of pursuits available to college kids these days is practically endless.
Depending on their predilection, students can take up badminton, bowls, basketball, chess, canoe polo, clay target shooting, cricket, cross-country, cycling, fencing, football, golf, hockey, kayaking, moto cross, mountain biking, multisport, rowing, rugby union, sailing, snow sports, squash, surfing, swimming, table tennis, tennis, touch, track and field, underwater hockey, volleyball, waka ama, water polo, white-water kayaking and yachting.
If none of those take their fancy, there is always Christian fellowship, debating, drama, jiu
jitsu, outdoor pursuits, orienteering, photography or tramping.
Still not satisfied? How about a trip to the States with a future problem-solving team or classes in visual arts, product technology, engineering and auto trades, wood-related trades, well-being, life skills, Japanese, Spanish or te reo?
Yep, kids at school these days can do almost anything.
Except, that is, to play rugby league.
On November 23, 2008, the Kiwis beat the Kangaroos 34-20 at Suncorp Stadium to become world champions. It was unexpected, but desperately needed after the All Blacks' inexplicable failure at their world showpiece the previous year.
The triumph accelerated the growing popularity of the game - especially among the younger crowd - leading to school kids sporting NRL club shorts in record numbers.
The game was to boom, like football is now, yet it has not.
The reason for that is self-evident.
How can a sport grow when it is barely played?
A recent Bay of Plenty Times article featuring former Warriors player Doc Murray led a number of readers to write in with stories of frustration.
Softball was another sport mentioned as one curiously absent from some Western Bay high schools, especially considering - as is the case with rugby league - New Zealand are the world champions.
There are not many sports we excel at on the world stage.
We are ranked 79 in football, 38 in tennis and about eight in cricket.

We won one track and field medal at the 2012 London Olympics.
Our volleyball teams struggle in senior competition and scholarships to American colleges for boys are rare.
The country's top men's table tennis player, Shane Laugesen, is ranked 473 in the world, while the top women's player is barely in the top 200.
Many of these sports exist in this part of the world primarily at the junior or amateur level. It is not possible, for instance, for a table tennis player or lawn bowler to make a living playing their sport. The professional leagues and marketing dollars do not exist.
That is in stark contrast to rugby league, which has 16 professional teams in Australasia actively scouting for talent all over the Pacific.
A rugby league scout from an Australian NRL club was at the most recent Bay of Plenty
secondary school athletics championships, looking to turn sprinters, jumpers and throwers into NRL professionals.
The number of Polynesians involved in the NRL is estimated to be about 30 per cent.
The number increases to 40 per cent in the under-20s competition, with a large proportion of them eligible to play for the Kiwis.
This year's grand final, between Manly and the Roosters, included nine Kiwi players - a
record aside from the two grand finals the Warriors have appeared in.
What would happen if they were able to send their scouts to secondary school games of rugby league?
NZRL upper central zone general manager Sasho Stosic and his team are doing all they can to make that a reality.
``We did a road show across the Bay of Plenty at school cluster meetings that are Sport Bay of Plenty led,'' said Stosic.
``We asked for a spot and they allowed us a small amount of time to present a proposal for the secondary schools.
``There's definitely been some interest. We know Rotorua Boys' High School are keen to attend the national secondary school championships again next year after the success they had and I think they only had two or three first fifteen players among them and still did really well.
``For us, that's a great example. There's another tier of athlete, or footballer, who can compete at that higher level.''
Getting schools to see it like that has long been a problem.
``There are huge historical boundaries in that rugby union is the prominent sport and, I guess, protective of their players.
``The barriers are there. It is usually someone in the chain of command that doesn't approve of rugby league and it normally gets cut off before people get an opportunity.
``We've got a very well-resourced Coach Force officer in Len Reid who has 10 years of
experience in working with these club coaches across the Bay of Plenty who could easily line up a club coach to support a school.
``Sometimes, even when we make those offers it's not something you really want to
point fingers at. It kind of gets put into the too hard basket.
``We are in no way trying to compete with rugby union. That is the national sport. For us, it's about giving kids an opportunity and there are oodles of kids out there that are wanting to have a crack and play.
``I guess sometimes it isn't as accessible in the school arena.''
Momentum is building in some quarters on the back of Rotorua Boys' High School trailblazing run to a spot in last year's national tournament.
``We've been talking to people at Western Heights which has been traditionally volleyball and rugby.
``The people there say there are at least 100 kids going to that school who play rugby league for a club. There are parents that are coming there so why aren't they getting a chance?
``For us, the challenge is to try to lure in the biggest schools in the Bay - the likes of Tauranga Boys' College. They are a massive rugby union school and they've got an academy.
``They've got plenty of rugby teams but they can't squeeze a league team in?
``We are confident when we get things up and running and show schools we can do it professionally that they'll be happy to jump on board. The kids will be asking, "why can't we do it?''
Stosic hopes a clearer picture of a proposed Baywide secondary school competition will emerge in the New Year, at which time the schools will come on board.
Mark Ballantyne tried to change the tide at Tauranga Boys' College. Problem was, he wanted it to come in when it had long stayed out.
A student at the school from 2008-2012, Ballantyne played in the elite rugby union teams in Years 9 and 10.
After becoming disillusioned with union at the end of 2009, he and about 10 others approached the school about the possibility of starting a rugby league team.
When they were refused, they decided to contact rugby league development officer for Sport Bay of Plenty's Coach Force Len Reid.
They did not have to go far. From the Sport Bay of Plenty offices on the corner of Devonport Road and 13th Avenue, Reid is only a short hop to the Tauranga Boys' campus.
Some of the school's top talent essentially walk right past his office to reach the newly completed gym that flanks the school's impressive squash facilities.
Reid approached the school with an offer to provide resources but was told thanks, but no thanks.
He continues to work with schools on growing the game across the region, while Ballantyne has found a home at the Otumoetai Eels.
Tauranga Boys' director of sport Darrell Boyd is on record saying the school offers a wide
variety of sports and is reluctant to place a greater strain on resources.
He added Tauranga Boys' is traditionally a rugby school and was unsure to what extent offering league would influence the numbers of students playing rugby union.

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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