Chris Rattue 's Opinion

Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Chris Rattue: Talent tidal wave eludes Auckland rugby

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Konrad Hurrell. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Konrad Hurrell. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Konrad Hurrell - there's a name to put in the hat and for a number of reasons. Hurrell, who made his first team debut for the Warriors in a pre-season game against the Gold Coast on Saturday, is a potential NRL star in either the problem position of centre or perhaps as a wing.

There are, of course, no guarantees about Hurrell's future in the tough NRL arena and his defence has been questioned. But on his sensational Toyota Cup form the potential is enormous, and his union-to-league story is fascinating in the context of a changing landscape in Auckland sport.

Here's the nub. The Auckland Rugby Union struggles to produce its own stars any more, to the point that the Blues are now reliant on disaffected players from other provinces. With so much raw football talent in the city, it is amazing Isaia Toeava is the only recent test-class back out of Auckland.

In marked contrast, the Warriors are on the verge of unleashing a tidal wave of local stars over the NRL. A number, including Hurrell, arrived via Auckland secondary school rugby union teams.

By rights, Hurrell should still be playing union. He was a leading light in the Auckland Grammar first XV and played for Auckland schools.

Hurrell came to Auckland from Tonga about three years ago. St Kentigern College was first alerted to him but missed the boat when a trial match was cancelled and they chose to sign another youngster.

Auckland Grammar recruited Hurrell on a scholarship and he boarded at the school from 2009, when his father also arrived in Auckland to ensure everything was in order. But as his New Zealand visa was running out, a cumbersome rugby union had trouble contracting Hurrell - unlike the more nimble Warriors organisation.

Graham Edwards, a student careers adviser and Auckland Grammar first XV manager, was a mentor to Hurrell. The youngster wanted to stay in rugby union, the only game he knew, and I understand Edwards tried to find Hurrell a club to play for after the Auckland Rugby Union advised him to do that. A couple of clubs were keen but unable to financially help Hurrell, who needed around $20,000 for fees to meet student visa requirements.

Edwards then sought the advice of Walter Alvarez, an old teaching comrade at St Peter's College who coached its first XV. Alvarez is an acquaintance of John Ackland, the Warriors recruitment/junior coaching guru and another former St Peters teacher. Ackland wanted Hurrell and the club was able to sort his employment/visa situation out.

Ackland recalls the day which told him Hurrell had the character to match his physical talents.

"Konrad played a junior trial for us at Cornwall Park in late 2010 and about 20 of the Auckland Grammar boarders turned up to support him and Graham Edwards was also there," says Ackland. "That respect told me something, that we were dealing with a good person."

The overall impression is, however, that Hurrell was a player rugby union wanted, that he wanted to continue playing the game, and yet he was virtually chased away.

Auckland rugby is apparently trying to emulate Canterbury/Crusaders nowadays in concentrating on quality rather than quantity. But the Hurrell case is among the evidence which suggests Auckland rugby is mired in a mish-mash of half judgments involving too many people.

How else can you explain the glaring lack of local talent coming through at the Blues, a team which should win titles and produce a stream of test stars?

The talk is that young Polynesian players feel at home with the Warriors, whereas in rugby, they are stereotyped and respected for brawn, not brains.

Junior players also come under the season-long wing of the Warriors, rather than finding themselves working their way around local club and representative teams as in rugby union. This means the Warriors have a direct influence on how they want the players to develop.

A rugby union official told me television coverage of the junior NRL Toyota Cup competition is a major bonus for league because this naturally attracts youngsters, gives their families and friends a buzz, and makes the players feel they are on a professional, glamorous pathway.

Whereas there is prestige attached to first XV rugby, the subsequent club scene feels like an obscure step backwards for top young prospects.

If this is a union v league battle for talent, or simply a comparison, a monolith is being outpointed by the skill and desperation of private ownership.

As for Hurrell, a bright if not certain future calls in the sport that chose him. He may be more suited to league yet for those wondering what the heck has gone wrong within Auckland/Blues rugby over the past decade or more, that is not the point.

- NZ Herald

Chris Rattue

Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Chris Rattue writes about a wide range of sports for the New Zealand Herald. He has covered numerous sporting events for the Herald including Rugby World Cups and the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

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