Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Sunday Insight: Schoolboy rugby's dirty secret

New Zealand's top rugby schools are luring talented young players with the promise of riches and stardom. But in a major Herald series beginning today, we reveal a darker take of boys left on the scrapheap with no future in rugby and no education

Josh Goodhue moved to Auckland to pursue his rugby career. Photo / Chris Loufte
Josh Goodhue moved to Auckland to pursue his rugby career. Photo / Chris Loufte

There is comfort to be found in routine for Mt Albert Grammar School First XV captain Josh Goodhue as he tries to deal with the nerves and excitement that come on Saturdays.

He knows that he and his team-mates must deliver. He has to have faith that the hours of training - four organised team sessions a week plus individual strength and conditioning work - are going to see his team emerge successful through the 70 minutes. He has to believe the video analysis, the detailed team meetings and tactical planning are going to be the difference. Victories are hard to come by in Auckland's ferociously competitive 1A competition.

Routine is everything for Goodhue - during the week, through Friday night, right up until kick-off, he's learned that getting the preparation right is vital. Now a Year 13, the big lock from Kawakawa has been going through this since he arrived at the MAGS boarding house as a wide-eyed Year 11 (what used to be called fifth form). He, his twin brother Jack and six other boarders are part of a First XV that is fancied to make the final of this year's competition.

"We usually do a stretching session the night before as well," says Goodhue. "We talk a bit about the game tomorrow.

"We wake up around nine o'clock just before the [junior] rugby starts up here and most of us will come up and watch a couple of the lower grades and then just chill.

"Ever since I started in Year 11, it has been hard every week. Any team can beat another on the day."

There are hundreds of boys much like Goodhue all across Auckland - and probably thousands more who want to be where he is. The prestige, the glory, the peer adulation - First XV members are granted almost heroic status.

That's how it has been for an age, but the landscape has changed dramatically in the past few years. What was once a game is now a potential career. Where once parents focused on a school's academic performance, many now deem the quality of the First XV and respective rugby programme more important. Schools used to operate on specific rugby budgets that were enough to buy some playing kit, pay for the odd team bus and a post-match feed. Now some schools allocate $50,000 just for their First XV - money that pays for video cameras, advanced software programmes, training camps, training aids, scrum machines and specialist coaching.

Simon Porter, one of the country's leading player agents, warns First XV players who are lucky enough to be awarded professional contracts to expect their first year out of school to be a bit of a let-down. "They won't train together as much and in some cases the facilities won't be as good."

Auckland's most prestigious schools say academia is front and centre - yet an almost frightening array of evidence says success on the rugby field is all that matters.

Often described as the best schoolboy competition in the world, the Auckland 1A championship has many teachers concerned that it has reached the stage where it is a corrosive and distorting influence on educational philosophies.

Principals, teachers, old boy networks, parents and live pay-per-view broadcasts are complicit in inflating the importance of rugby success - of placing First XV on an almost ludicrously high pedestal and endorsing a culture that promotes and celebrates rugby above all else.

The 12 teams in the 1A competition are estimated to spend close to $500,000 on their respective First XVs, drawn from school funding, sponsorships and old-boy networks. Half the teams in the competition offer specific rugby scholarships. Across the 12 squads, 38 boys are listed as new to their respective school in the past two years. Sacred Heart alone has seven of those boys listed in its First XV squad. Auckland Grammar, Mt Albert Grammar, St Kentigern and Kelston Boys' High School each have four.

Some schools have either a First XV coach or director of rugby who is not a registered teacher. The Herald on Sunday understands that some schools are paying up to $80,000 for these roles. St Kentigern College, the defending Auckland, national and world champion, has a dedicated conditioning coach. Several schools have set up junior academies where kids are taught rugby in class time.

An increasing number of experienced educators are troubled by what they have seen in recent years. The 1A competition used to form a component of a holistic education. It was an avenue outside the classroom to foster leadership, enterprise, courage and team-work.

The list of winners over the years suggests investment in rugby was largely equitable: a lower decile school such as De La Salle College in Mangere was just as capable of being champion - as in 2003 and 2008 - as the fee-paying King's College whose team won in 2005.

Now, schools such as St Kent's, King's College and Sacred Heart have reputations as "ambitious" rugby schools. More than a third of the 38 boys who have switched schools in the past two years have washed up at these three colleges.

"Rugby is a high-profile sport and can put a school on the map," says Auckland Grammar headmaster Tim O'Connor. "Each school will make their own decisions about their approach. I think parents and boys make choices about the schools they want to attend for a variety of reasons. And sport, particularly rugby, is the number one reason. It's not the right approach to education and I think we always have to remember that the whole reason for our existence is to educate people - to help them learn things."

Rugby has become a legitimate career option for young men. It's not just rugby either - Australia's NRL and AFL clubs have also come to view the 1A competition as arguably the world's richest source of football talent.

In any given year, between 20 and 40 boys in the 1A competition will be offered some kind of professional contract. These range from glorified pocket money deals in an ITM Cup provincial academy to $20,000 to $80,000 with an Australian NRL club.

For those who are able to make it in the cut-throat world of professional football codes, the rewards are immense - and for many families the perceived strength and importance of a school's rugby programme is an important factor in determining where their child will be educated.

All 12 schools accept that being a professional rugby player is a legitimate option, but where they differ is in their level of encouragement for boys to go down that path. That is, how hard are members of the First XV pushed in the classroom?

Dale Burden, the headmaster at Mt Albert Grammar School, says: "We don't want to win with anything other than kids who have good values and are well-rounded people. I am more interested in the process than the outcome.

"Academics is the most important thing. When the First XV is picked it has to be circulated to all the deans to make sure everyone can play - that they have been trying their best and that they have been good people. We don't measure success by our First XV results but by the level of contribution people leaving here can make to society."

He says: "Many of the First XV overachieved academically. With some boys you need a hook and that is probably more true of Pasifika boys. But we are not going to be a production line to any age-grade national teams."

Some schools, however, are intensely cynical about the conduct of other schools. Significant numbers of pupils at lower decile schools, particularly those in South Auckland such as Tangaroa College, De La Salle and Otahuhu College, have been offered the chance to move.

The pupils are sold the opportunity of a "better education".

But Tangaroa principal Ngaire Ashmore is not convinced the opportunities are all they seem. "We continue to have up-and-coming rugby players in our school offered scholarships to leave us and attend the so-called 'long-established rugby schools' in the 1A rugby competition, even as recent as this term.

"Is this about providing educational opportunities for students and their future or is it about securing rugby talent to ensure the continued success of the First XV programmes in these 'long-established rugby schools', for their old boy networks, at whatever the cost?"

At Otahuhu College, deputy principal Toe Pune feels the same. To his mind, changing schools carries a risk around the academic experience as well as the child's social wellbeing, self-esteem, self-confidence and sense of worth. Pune doesn't advise any family against a shift, but he encourages them to talk it over with him before they commit.

"We go through the scenarios and ask the questions: is he going to play much or be sitting on the bench? And what about in the classroom? Will he be well-supported? Will they speak his language, because we can do that.

"Not every child is right for that type of education. So we say to the parents, let's push the rugby or the rugby league but let's also keep pushing the education, too."

Some who shift thrive in their new environments. But the Herald on Sunday, in conducting this investigation, was told many stories of boys who did not.

The worst example was of a boy who left De La Salle in 2006 for a place at St Kentigern College and returned two years later with 58 credits - not even achieving NCEA.

"He returned to De La Salle with not enough credits for Level 1," says Nigel Hurst, head of rugby at De La Salle. "These boys who they are offering a 'better' education to just so happen to all be great athletes."

It's not uncommon for boys to give up their scholarships and return to their original school having made, at best, moderate academic advancement, if any at all.

But the head of St Kentigern College, Steve Cole, claims things are changing for the better. "Since I became Head of College in 2009 the students who are involved in sport, including rugby at St Kentigern, have records of academic achievement," he says. "It is an important part of being at St Kentigern."

Recruitment is the corrosive element in schools rugby: suspicion is rife about the legality and ethics, yet so rarely is wrongdoing proved.

Only twice in recent years has College Sport, the body that manages the competition, found bona fide evidence of poaching. One case was in 2010 when a member of staff at St Kentigern College was adjudged to have been in contact with one of his former pupils at Aorere College. The other was when Mt Albert Grammar tried to lure a boy from Avondale College.

Those entrenched in the system say that the reason more cases haven't come to light is more to do with the difficulty of proving wrongdoing rather than it is not happening.

That figure of 38 new boys in the respective 12 squads is even more telling when further analysed. Bram Egli was listed as new to King's College last year and was selected in the New Zealand Barbarians Schools team, which was effectively a national side for Year 12 boys. His team-mate Sinclair Dominikovich-Murray was also listed as new to King's and he made the New Zealand Secondary Schools side, as did Broc Hooper, who was listed as new to St Kentigern College.

Many of the new arrivals happen to play in positions where a school was obviously weak the year before and that creates the belief that there is obvious succession planning.

The battleground isn't so much at the established level - there are strict stand-down rules for boys who have already played First XV elsewhere. It is more in the Year 9 and Year 10 age groups.

Again, there are strict rules about schools enticing boys to switch, but those working in the system say it's relatively easy to work around those rules. Ultimately, the trick is to somehow plant the seed of shifting in the minds of the pupils. If the boy or his family make the approach, then everyone has a clear conscience.

"We provide the whole package and we are approached all the time," says King's College headmaster Bradley Fenner. "We see great kids every year but unfortunately can't make them all offers. We have a lot of people who talk to us after they have talked to other people - former Collegians and parents, and so on. We don't have a network of scouts but it is interesting how conversations take place.

"There is a pretty rigorous set of rules about poaching. We operate within those rules."

Policing this area is next to impossible. Many of the boys are in age-grade representative teams, coached by teachers at rival schools. Teachers move around for legitimate reasons and therefore have established relationships with boys at their former schools. Boys from different schools become friends and hear about the grass being greener.

Private schools have scholarships and bequests to help facilitate boys switching; Catholic schools have no catchment zones and a limited number of places for boys of a different faith; some of the public schools have boarding houses and limited places available on ballot.

"Last year, we had 10 boys on ballot - sons of former old boys and teachers so we can maintain the culture of the school," says Auckland Grammar's Tim O'Connor. "I'm sure the public think we line up all the best sportsmen and take them but it doesn't work like that."

Every school protests its innocence, yet one source told a story of a boy changing schools after his family shifted into a new zone. When he came to give the boy a lift home after a practice, he learned the family hadn't moved at all. There are many stories of boys boarding at Central Auckland schools despite their families living in Central Auckland.

At Mt Albert Grammar, Burden says: "We don't have dedicated talent scouts having a look for players. But I would be lying if I said our development coaches don't have a look at intermediate schools that feed into us. A lot of that is about strengthening relationships with kids who will be coming here anyway."

His first XV captain, Josh Goodhue, is unabashed in admitting why he moved. "The reason I came to Auckland was for the standard of rugby," Josh says. "It's probably the best First XV competition in the world and just being able to play in it is so good for my rugby."

Rugby continues to be culturally defining in New Zealand. For many young men, their best experiences of the sport will happen at school. The 1A competition is especially prestigious - the envy of the world because it fosters strong values and provides positive experiences as part of a wider education.

Many of the games are televised on Sky; scouts from professional teams will be on the sidelines; crowds can be bigger than those at ITM Cup games; school assemblies on Monday mornings can be memorable when the First XV wins.

But as Nigel Hurst, head of rugby at De La Salle College, says: "Having been involved in education for more than 30 years I wonder whether other people who are influential, such as principals, are putting the interests of themselves and the reputation of their school before the kids. The kids have to come first - they are the reason we have schools, to educate them and help them become better people."

- Additional reporting Campbell Burnes

Eligibility rules

• Teams can register up to 28 players who are under 18 on January 1 of any given year - a maximum of six can be new to school in the past two years.

• Any player who has represented another First XV must observe a stand-down of six consecutive games.

• Teams with four or fewer new squad members can apply for an exemption allowing them to field two players aged 18 or over at January 1 , so long as they are neither new to the school nor fee-paying international students.

- Herald on Sunday

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