Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Success of St Kent's raises suspicions and scepticism

School claims the 1st XV's remarkable results are down to hard work and good coaching but questions are often asked about the number of `imports' in side and ruthless pursuit of talent through financial investment.

St Kentigern College players make a beeline for the coaching staff after winning the Auckland 1A secondary schools rugby competition. Photo / Greg Bowker
St Kentigern College players make a beeline for the coaching staff after winning the Auckland 1A secondary schools rugby competition. Photo / Greg Bowker

Unbeaten in 45 games, reigning Auckland, national and world champions St Kentigern College have set new standards in excellence but have divided the schoolboy rugby fraternity in their pursuit of success.

Their level of investment - in facilities, specialist coaching and focused recruitment through scholarships - has left many teachers and coaches at other schools with the impression that victory is being chased at any price.

Those connected with the school, such as head of social studies and assistant 1st XV coach Josh Syms, say the unbeaten streak, the endless procession of boys into age-grade sides and then professional contracts, is almost entirely due to hard work and good coaching.

"It's a pretty simple formula," says Syms about why St Kent's last defeat came on July 11, 2011, to Sacred Heart. "The athletes reflect the hard work and time we put into them. The main emphasis - the point of difference between teams in the 1A competition - is good coaching."

The other leading schools, in Auckland and further afield - agree that coaching is a big part of the picture, but they also feel that much of St Kent's success is due to their financial investment and a callous and ruthless approach to the recruitment of talent.

St Kent's 1st XV budget is alleged to be anything between $200,000 to in excess of $500,000, with the other leading schools spending about $50,000.

Syms has heard all the speculative figures and dismisses them as fanciful - saying he had to buy his own team jacket. It is probable that St Kent's are spending in line with the other top schools in terms of an annual, specific 1st XV budget, but there is a state-of-the-art gym, a dedicated conditioning coach, a physio and video analysis.

It's the level of recruitment that is of most concern to other schools. There are four players listed as new to school in the current squad - one of whom had to serve a six-game consecutive stand-down as he had played for Southern Cross 1st XV last year.

There were also four listed as new to the school in last year's squad and headmaster Steve Cole, says: "There is no secret that some of the team are on scholarships, as are other students who are assisted in academia, drama, art etcetera. A good number of the squad are full fee-paying students, including the captain."

It is understood St Kent's have previously tended to offer rugby scholarships to older boys - Year 10 and above. But that has left some of the new arrivals with limited time to adapt to the school's wider culture. It has also, according to one informant, "left some teachers at St Kent's no longer supporting their 1st XV. They don't feel they have any affinity with a team of largely 'imported' kids".

What has contributed to the suspicion about the importance attached to the 1st XV, is the consistently poor results of the St Kentigern 2nd XV, who are bottom of their competition and finished second last in 2012.

One well-placed source told the Herald that the 2nd XV was actually a truer reflection of the school, and said: "They don't care what happens to the kids after school. All this talk of personal development is rubbish really; they're all about the here and now. They're totally geared to the 1st XV. They'll hammer you and hammer you and if you don't make the 1st XV, they couldn't care less about you."

St Kent's is continually accused of mining the greater Auckland area and beyond in search of the best rugby talent. Current 1st XV members Sam Nock and Dillon Wihongi were offered scholarships shortly after impressing for Northland's Roller Mills team. Last year, Broc Hooper was listed as new - he arrived from South Auckland - and he made the New Zealand Secondary Schools team.

Some boys at St Kent's who have worked their way up the teams are thought to have been disillusioned in recent years by the arrival of so many talented players. They get to the cusp of the 1st XV only to miss out.

Auckland Grammar headmaster Tim O'Connor explained why his school is conscious of not denying long-serving pupils their dream of playing for the 1st XV. "We have to be transparent and accountable and my belief is that you have to provide a development pathway. How would someone feel if they came through the teams, got to the 2nd XV and were then pipped to the 1st XV because someone is brought into the school? They would have a genuine grievance and would be able to question our integrity."

The emphasis is thought to be shifting, with St Kent's preferring to offer three to four-year rugby scholarships to younger boys. If the pupils perform well - at rugby and academically - they will most likely have their scholarship extended so they can see out their schooling.

It's apparent that there is a growing body of teachers, coaches and parents involved with the 1A championship who are sceptical about the approach being taken by St Kent's, but there are undisputed positives emerging and it also has to be acknowledged that other leading schools are also listing big numbers of new boys each year and not enjoying the same success.

Syms says nearly all of last season's pack left knowing their tertiary education was paid for. "All bar three of our squad have never lost in the 1st XV jersey," he says. "Rugby is a vehicle for these boys to go where they want to go. Success for us is seeing the boys go on to achieve more when they leave here."

The streak

Last defeat: Sacred Heart College, 18-23, July 11, 2011
Played since: 46
Won: 45
Drew: 1 - Mt Albert Grammar School 9-9, May 18, 2013
Points for: 1597
Points against: 385
1A titles: 2011, 2012
National co-ed champions: 2012
Sanix World Youth Champions: 2013

1st XV Mania - Win at what cost?
A week-long investigation into schoolboy rugby's dirty little secret
Sunday - Schoolboy rugby's dirty little secret
Yesterday -Auckland rugby's rich-poor divide
Also today - Read turned back on 'big' school
Tomorrow - How the Rugby Channel has fulled the obsession

- NZ Herald

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