Our rich schoolboy rugby union talent is attracting NRL scouts from across the Tasman, writes Michael Burgess.
In Auckland, 1st XV rugby used to be the first step towards the NPC or the Blues-but now
the best schoolboys are just as likely to end up in the NRL. Our playing fields have become a battleground as the scramble for talent is becoming increasingly competitive.
New Zealand rugby has always been recognised as an incredible developer of talent, something that has come to the attention of Australian NRL clubs in the past few years.
Schoolboys around the country are regularly courted by NRL clubs, and increasing numbers are targeted to switch codes.
Several of last year's New Zealand secondary schools team are now within the NRL system, while"four or five" players at St Kentigern College, the 2011 Auckland champions, have already received NRL offers.
Down in the capital, a 15-year-old at a noted school has signed a four-year deal with a major NRL club, believed to be the Melbourne Storm.
Auckland Rugby likes to claim nobody they want slips through their net but league may have superior talent identification systems, which has bred concern and even a touch of paranoia.
Before the Blues under-18s team went to play their junior Rebels counterparts in Melbourne this year, there were attempts to sign players to loyalty agreements, such was the fear they would be targeted by aggressive league scouts during their time in Australia.
"Players are targeted younger and younger," says former All Black and Kiwi Craig Innes. "It is creating an extremely competitive environment." Innes, now a player agent working across both codes, admires the exhaustive approach favoured by league representatives.
"They are all over the country, but especially in Auckland, looking for talent. They know there is a massive pool of talent here and are determined to unearth it."
NRL club representatives are a common sight at the New Zealand secondary schools tournament, as well as events like the Condor Sevens and regional competitions. There is also the Rugby Channel on Sky, which delivers the best college rugby to any living room in the country. However, there is also growing disquiet among schools, amid talk of the "underhand and backdoor methods" favoured by league agents to get to their targets.
"League agents can be very aggressive," said one Auckland 1st XV coach, who preferred not to be named. "They tend to make big promises and flash the cash to what can be impressionable young men."
There are stories of agents watching a game in the afternoon and turning up later at a prospect's family home to talk to his parents. A league insider talks of players being offered contracts at Australian clubs, only for parents to find they have to stump up for accommodation and other costs.
"While there are plenty of success stories," says the source. "There are also the players who come back; the ones we don't tend to hear about."
Tai Lavea, the twin brother of former Storm and Blues player Tasesa, he is 1st XV coach and director of rugby at St Kentigern College.
"I don't mind which sport they choose," says Lavea,"But I always encourage them to get good advice before they sign anything. They can be big decisions and you don't
want them to jump the gun."
Lavea's 2011 captain, Albert Vete, is now at the Junior Warriors and possibly their most famous old boy is the Storm's Matt Duffie. "He was pretty special," remembers Lavea. "I was surprised that Auckland rugby let him go, to be honest."
According to Lavea, interest increases every year. He has a 16-year-old, 100kg winger attracting the attention of several NRL clubs.
Across town, former Kiwis captain Dean Bell is at the forefront of recruitment for the Warriors, as their development manager. Much to the surprise ofhis family, Bell is nowa subscriber to the Rugby Channel. It is a handy resource, supplementing the small team he has looking at players across the region.
"I don't think we are stealing players-we are just another option," says Bell. "There are
so many [good players] out there and not that many places for them to go.With our emphasis on pathways and education, it can be a good fit for some."
"When it comes to [making the transition] obviously the younger, the better," says Warriors coach Brian McClennan. "You are able to teach them habits much quicker and you can set the development of a player in his youth." Bell admits the Warriors operation will only grow. "We want to expand what we are doing and make no apologies for that," says Bell. "We are committed to becoming the best development club in the NRL and local
talent is critical for us."
Bell rejects criticism that they should have more contact with the schools. "I don't see why we should talk to schools," says Bell. "We always deal with the players and their parents - it's their lives, after all. Anyway it wouldn't be smart; if we told a school that we were interested Our rich schoolboy rugby union talent is attracting NRL scouts from across the Tasman, writes Michael Burgess. in a particular player, it would be like sending an alert to every Super Rugby franchise and NRL club."
Still, it hasn't stopped schools from getting involved. One school demanded a copy of a student's Warriors' contract (politely turned down) and there are other instances of players being pressured into not signing league contracts,solely so they can continue to be available for the 1st XV squad.
It is also not simply a case of league poaching union talent. Many recruits have a league background, turning to rugby only when they arrive at high school. Despite small gains, league is still not a realistic option at most top Auckland schools; either it is actively discouraged or can't compete with the incredible kudos, prestige and support that comes with 1st XV rugby.
Junior Warriors winger Ngataua Hukatai is a pertinent example. He playedfor Mangere East Hawks as a junior before gaining a rugby scholarship to King's College. Like fellow Junior Warrior Viliami Lolohea, he has now returned to his original sport. Bell also had several development players on his books who have asked permission to play 1st XV rugby while still at school.
Warriors star Elijah Taylor is another who has switched codes. After growing up in Taranaki and the Far North "where league basically didn't exist", he had the opportunity to try both codes at St Paul's College; league for the 1st XIII on Wednesdays, then rugby on Saturdays. He made the Auckland under-16 rugby side when he was spotted by Warriors assistant coach Tony Iro and joined their development programme.
Since their inception, the Melbourne Storm have been active in our market and had five Kiwis feature in their first grand final in 1999.They are recognised as one of the best talent spotters-and talent developers - in the game, with their academy system second to none. There are 13 New Zealanders across their NRL and Toyota Cup squads and eight have a rugby background.
"Apart from physical attributes, the most important characteristic is desire," says Storm football operations manager Frank Ponissi. "It is preferable they have some past experience of league and a real hunger to succeed. We are often not talking a lot of money but it is more the opportunity we are providing."
Ponissi says the Storm have "quite a number" of people working in New Zealand but, like Bell, does not have a relationship with the schools, with the parents the first port of call.
"We will never harass someone," says Ponissi. "We are a quite selective about who we want and we stay patient. We look at a lot of players but only want the right ones. Due to our location and the sheer nature of Sydney clubs, it is a reality that the vast majority of our players will continue to come from Queensland and New Zealand."
The Storm have a positive relationship with the NZRU; the All Black coaches have spent time in Melbourne, as have the Crusaders, Highlanders and other provincial outfits. As one of the poster boys for converts, perhaps Matt Duffie deserves the final say. He still catches up with team-mates from his school days but says none have yet to graduate to the Blues or higher honours within rugby.
"Sometimes you think about what might have been but that doesn't last very long," says Duffie. "It has been a great move for me. Maybe one day, I'll give rugby another go but right now, I am really happy with league."By Michael Burgess Email Michael