Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Two worlds of school rugby: Five schools spending $400,000 on 1st XVs

Schoolboy rugby in Auckland has lost any notion of egalitarianism and the world famous 1A competition is now divided along financial lines.

The Herald's investigation into First XV rugby can reveal that five schools - Auckland Grammar, King's College, Mt Albert Grammar, Sacred Heart College and St Kentigern College - are estimated to be spending more than $400,000 collectively on their respective First XVs while the other seven teams in the 1A competition are spending collectively about $50,000.

Experienced educators with knowledge of the Auckland rugby scene say there is now a culture of "have" and "have-not" schools. They say the growing financial divide is a concern for many reasons, notably:

It is indicative of and likely to be fostering a win-at-all-costs culture at the expense of a holistic education.

It is creating too many one-sided contests and doing much to preclude the lower-spending schools from winning the title.

Tell us your 1st XV experience. Email sport@hos.co.nz

It is encouraging the best young players to switch to one of the richer schools where they see their prospects of rep team selection and an eventual professional career as much higher.

King's College spends $70,000 a year on rugby overall and $40,000 specifically on the First XV. Sacred Heart estimates total annual expenditure on its First XV to be $50,000.

Neither Auckland Grammar nor Mt Albert Grammar would divulge their respective budgets but the Herald estimates they will spend in line with Sacred Heart - their funds drawn from school donations and sponsorships.

St Kentigern College, reigning Auckland, New Zealand and world champions and reputed to be the biggest spenders, also refused to divulge their financial commitment.

Sources with good knowledge of the school estimate St Kents will spend $150,000-$200,000 this year - with the figure inflated as the First XV travelled to Japan for the world Sanix championship in April.

Manoj Daji, chief executive of College Sport, the body that runs the 1A competition, says: "I am very concerned at the budget amounts suggested on a number of levels.

"The divide that is emerging is both unhealthy and worrying for the ethos of the competition. Such budgets suggest an overimportance being placed on winning the 1A title and/or keeping a school's place in this competition. Do the curriculum budgets of small departments in schools match these sorts of numbers?

"Already this season there has been 90 and 60-point wins recorded in the 1A competition. Even more worrying is young players believing the only pathway to top level rugby is via a school with a significant rugby budget."

While the greater investment made by the "rich" schools does in most cases provide the boys with access to better facilities, equipment, recovery advice, training aids and nutrition, the real benefit is that it has enabled the "big five" to develop reputations as the best destinations for those pupils who see rugby as a potential career option.

Geoff Moon, director of rugby at Mt Albert Grammar, who also has extensive coaching and teaching experience in South Auckland, says the biggest difference from 10 years ago is that many parents see professional rugby as a realistic career for their children.

"Things have changed a little bit because [good rugby programmes] are something that parents want now," he says. "It's a consequence of the sport going professional - some schools have placed more emphasis on getting sport right and it is more of a priority than it has been in some schools."

That parents across the city are willing to shift their children in search of a better rugby experience is borne out by the fact that there are 38 boys playing in the 1A this year who are listed as new to their respective schools. Of those 38, 22 have shifted to one of the big five rich schools.

There were 47 boys picked for the recent Blues Under-18 development camp: 34 of them came from the five richest schools. When the squad was cut to 25 players after the camp, 20 were from the five richest schools - which supports the perception that kids from a high-profile rugby institution have a better chance of cracking rep teams.

A number of current Blues players prove that it is possible to make it to the professional ranks from one of the less well-resourced schools. Charlie Faumuina, capped by the All Blacks last year, attended Papatoetoe High School; Keven Mealamu was a pupil at Aorere College; and young prop Ofa Tu'ungafasi made the New Zealand Secondary Schools team out of Mangere College.

But former All Black Ant Strachan, who is the high performance manager at the Auckland Rugby Union - largely responsible for determining which First XV players will be offered professional contracts - says that as much as he tries to cast the selection net wide and keep an eye on the 1B and 1C competitions, the well-resourced schools are probably going to develop the bulk of the players who will be in line for higher honours.

The clustering of talent has fed concerns among the educational fraternity that winning the competition is now beyond those seven, lower-spending schools. Since De La Salle, the decile 1 Catholic school from Mangere, won in 2008, the list of 1A winners reads, Mt Albert in 2009 and 2010, followed by St Kents in 2011 and 2012 with those two schools fancied to make the final again this year.

Historically, like all schoolboy competitions, 1A has been subject to natural cycles depending on the relative strength of respective peer groups. But that pattern is being distorted, say some seasoned observers, because of the level of recruitment - particularly of younger pupils.

"The big worry for me is that we have a really good Under-14 team this year," says De La Salle's head of rugby, Nigel Hurst. "But how many of them will be here when they get to Year 11? South Auckland has just become a talent pool for the rich schools."

Northland boys lured south by schools

The battleground for rugby talent is fierce within Auckland - more intense again when it comes to enticing pupils from outside the city, particularly students from Northland.

The Herald understands that in any given year between 30 to 50 boys from Northland will be lured to board at Auckland schools. More than a third of the 100-plus boarders at Mt Albert Grammar are from Northland, while similar numbers are thought to be at Auckland Grammar, and King's, Sacred Heart and St Kents are also believed to house significant volumes of boys from up north.

Northland is recognised as having large numbers of talented kids but no established schoolboy competition of note.

Northland Rugby Union high performance manager, Peter Nock, says that scenario has led to Auckland's leading schools taking an intense interest in the region.

He says mutually beneficial, informal relationships have been struck, where schools strengthen their rugby squads and boys improve their education and sporting prospects.

"For the families it is an opportunity to go to a high-profile school," says Nock. "When you consider that some of the kids up here have to travel an hour to school and back, moving to these sorts of schools in Auckland where they have their own gyms and they are pushed to excel, it's often an easy decision to make."

Nock says he has almost become an intermediary - fielding calls from families eager to relocate their sons and also from a handful of schools.

His own son, Sam, transferred to St Kentigern College on a four-year scholarship after he impressed playing for Northland's Roller Mills team. Fellow Northlander Dillon Wihongi was also offered a scholarship by St Kents and Nock says that following the recent Blues Schools camp, Shelford Murray, of Kaitaia College, is now fielding several offers to transfer to Auckland.

The Herald spoke to several sources who had no doubt the majority of the boys transferring from Northland were doing so for legitimate reasons - the shift would be beneficial for all aspects of their eduction. But they felt the 1A competition was being further skewed in favour of wealthier schools who had the capacity to attract the best players from in and out of Auckland.

"There is no doubt that the schools with boarding facilities have the single biggest advantage," says Dave Syms, former Auckland Grammar teacher, First XV coach and headmaster at Palmerston North Boys' High School and now operations manager at the Auckland Rugby Union.

Read more:
20 years on, Mealamu is still an inspiration

Sunday Insight
Schoolboy rugby's dirty secret

Tomorrow
Mystery at St Kent's: How do the reigning schoolboy world champs go unbeaten 45 games in a row.

Tell us your 1st XV experience. Email sport@hos.co.nz

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