Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

College rugby: Lights, camera, action for the boys

The advent of live 1st XV coverage hasn't so much changed the nature of the 1A competition as fast-track it down a path it was already on.

The regular presence of Sky's TV cameras has added to the hype - boosted the prestige of the competition and helped strengthen the perception that schoolboy rugby in Auckland is professional in every way bar the direct payment of the players.

That much was inevitable when Sky decided to begin regular live 1st XV coverage in 2009. Former cricket legend Martin Crowe was Sky's driver into the unprecedented territory of regular live schoolboy broadcasts and it was his ethos that if it was worth doing, it was worth doing properly.

"That's why we dress our presenters/commentators in suits and we don't want the whole thing looking like a joke," says Sky's director of 1st XV rugby, Andrew Hawthorn. "Everything we do in our schools coverage is at a similar level to our ITM Cup coverage in terms of the presentation and the number of cameras we have.

It's our feedback and impression that the schools want this."

Certainly the boys want it. They now have the opportunity to play not only in front of their friends, family and peers - but a nationwide audience as well. Seeing regular promotions for 1st XV on Sky amid Super 15 and All Black coverage inevitably heightens interest and the sense of occasion when games are televised.

"Of course, you have to talk to the boys about it. It's not like it's nothing," says Mt Albert Grammar 1st XV skipper Josh Goodhue. "There's going to be a bigger crowd than usual, and the cameras. It's going to play a part, but it's about how you deal with it. We talk individually about it without the coaches, just looking at what we expect from each other and no one trying to show off."

And for those boys who want to try to forge a professional career, they now have increased opportunity to be spotted.

Those boys who play well in a televised game can suddenly come on to the radar of a range of talent scouts. Even All Black coach Steve Hansen says he watches the occasional schoolboy game on TV just to keep a loose handle on who is on the scene.

Coaches, player agents and parents all say that the boys are aware of what playing well on TV can mean - aware now that if the cameras are there, a big performance can be potentially life-changing.

It's not uncommon for some boys to be contacted by player agents, NRL scouts and high performance managers at provincial unions immediately after they have starred on TV. The battle for talent is fierce and those in the business of recruitment know that delay can be disastrous.

This progression towards pseudo-professional rugby in the 1A competition was arguably well under way before Sky committed to live broadcasts. Their involvement is seen more as an inevitable conclusion rather than as the catalyst.

The original decision to get involved carried a significant element of commercial risk. The potential audience was unknown yet there was obviously some confidence that the venture would be well supported. Old boy networks are famously strong - particularly in Auckland - and Sky, without saying as much, obviously gambled that it could make 1st XV rugby work financially because of the ties many former pupils feel to their respective alma maters.

Sky won't detail subscription or viewership figures but director of sport Richard Last says: "I'm really happy with the way college rugby has been covered on Sky and it is really encouraging and pleasing to see increased interest in these great matches ... College rugby has been a great success for the Rugby Channel and Sky."

Yet while the venture has been a success commercially, Sky's interest in schoolboy rugby is not about endorsing the culture of winningat all costs.

Some of the historic schoolboy rivalries are integral components of New Zealand rugby, and probably wider, social culture. The likes of the King's College versus Auckland Grammar game; the Polson banner game between Palmerston North Boys' High and Napier Boys' High; Southland Boys' v Otago Boys'; Christchurch Boys' v St Bede's College - these games are high impact in their local communities. They provide lifelong memories for those lucky enough to play in them, and that, says Hawthorn, is the real attraction of covering 1st XV.

"The thing about schoolboy rugby is that everyone who has ever played it will probably remember one magic moment when they ran through the defence or whatever. For about 90 per cent of players - if not more - they won't go on to do anything else in rugby."

Sacred Heart captain speaks of the pressures and passions of playing for his school

Jamie Lane captains the Sacred Heart College 1st XV and is a prefect. The 17-year-old Year 13 student boards at the school but goes home to Clevedon at weekends. His form in the second row has been top-notch.

SHC has had two TV games this year. How do you cope with the pressure of those occasions?

My first one was quite scary. You did feel quite a bit of pressure but once you have a few under your belt you get used to it. The crowds at Sacred Heart are always out in numbers anyway, chanting. It's an honour and rewarding to play on TV and gives the boys the opportunity to show what they've got to the country.

How do you rate the 1A contest?

Is it right up there for quality?Oh, definitely. There are no easy games in the first division. If you have an off day, then you can end up losing to one of the bottom teams. Tangaroa College are doing very well this year, and only lost by a point to King's. You can't have a rest in this competition.

Has the overall standard gone up this year compared with 2012?

It's probably stayed about the same. Last year, being young, it was quite daunting playing against the older boys. But this year, having more experience, it's easier. Is the 1A an even playing field? We know some schools have bigger rolls and pump more resources into their First XV.Some obviously have a bit more money, but I don't think that really affects it. It's all on the passion and pride. I guess if you want it enough, you'll train hard enough. I was talking to a few boys at the [Blues Under 18] camp; they don't train any harder than us or any different. It's just game plan and how much you want it.

Do you think the 1A standard of refereeing has kept pace with the conditioning of the players?

It's different every week. We've had some pretty harsh calls, especially in the Kelston game. [The refs] are still learning as well. Everyone is human and makes mistakes. Can you give us some idea of your training week?We start on Monday morning from about 6-7.30am in the gym. On Tuesday afternoons we go from about 4-5pm and then Wednesday morning and afternoons same time. Thursday afternoon is the team run.

Do you do any extras as well?

We're always given video from the week before which we can bring up on the school 'net. We just analyse it and see what players the opposition have, what they are doing in lineouts and work out how to combat it.

The SHC field is one of the best surfaces in Auckland, so that must help the enjoyment levels?

Yeah, it is. There's also a lot of history in our changing room, with the names of past All Blacks and players. It's quite an uplifting feeling and when we run on through the tunnel [of students] it's a great feeling and an honour. We have a good supporters' club network and the prefects get the boys up chanting. It's encouraging and gets the boys going. We do a haka usually for traditional games or other big games.

Do you have aspirations to crack that NZ Schools squad?

That's definitely the goal and probably the goal of everyone playing rugby. That would be an honour.

How hard is it to balance your schoolwork and rugby with good time management skills?

It's a good lesson. It doesn't get any easier when you leave school but you know it will be rewarding in the end. I'm trying to get into uni next year, perhaps looking at engineering or construction or something along those lines.

When you look back in 20 years or so, do you expect you will recall your SHC 1st XV days fondly?

Yes. I keep getting told that 1st XV will be the pinnacle of your rugby life for a lot of people. I'll always remember the Grammar game last year, and playing against King's, playing with the boys. I've made some good friendships through it, so hopefully I can catch up with the same guys in 20 years and continue those friendships.

Interviewed by Campbell Burnes

- NZ Herald

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