Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Unearthing talent is becoming dirty

As competition across Australasian sporting codes becomes more cut-throat, the race to secure teenage talent has become more intense - nowhere more so than the Auckland schoolboy rugby scene.
Auckland Grammar's Rieko Ioane looks set to sign for the Blues. Photo / Getty Images
Auckland Grammar's Rieko Ioane looks set to sign for the Blues. Photo / Getty Images

It's not just politics that is dirty. Rugby recruitment is heading that way, too. A market once governed by gentlemen's agreements and a moral compass that pointed people in the right direction, is now a bit of a free-for-all, with schoolboys, some still in Year 12, being lined up for Super Rugby contracts worth $75,000.

The Blues, by no means the instigator of this aggressive courting of first XV stars, are believed to be close to signing three schoolboys to full-time contracts.

Rieko Ioane, who starred for Auckland Grammar in the recent 1A final, is expected to sign a deal that will see him join the Blues in 2016. Ioane, younger brother of New Zealand sevens representative Akira, is a powerful midfielder who will be collecting nearly $100,000 a year just 12 months after he leaves school.

The Blues are believed to be close to signing two others still at school to also join the squad in 2016.

Coach John Kirwan would rather not be making such firm and expensive commitments to players so young but says he had little choice. All three are believed to have been offered Super Rugby contracts elsewhere and NRL and AFL clubs had also tabled significant offers.

"The market place is changing," Kirwan says. "I think part of that is down to schoolboy rugby being on TV. Some of it's due to the increased investment schools are making in sport and some of it's because of the maturity of the athletes, particularly in our region."

If the Blues hadn't come up with contracts, they'd have been reading headlines down the track about yet more players they failed to talent spot and allowed to get away.

Caught between a rock and a hard place, what were the Blues supposed to do? But there's increasing concern among schools, provinces and some parents that so much is being offered to players so young.

"There is increasing encroachment when we would like our boys to be able to concentrate on their academic studies," says Auckland Grammar principal Tim O'Connor. "Rugby is on Sky TV and there is a lot of hype growing around it but we need to keep college sport in perspective. Having contracts being offered doesn't help."

Only a few years ago, it was unheard of for schoolboys to be offered Super Rugby deals. It was unheard of for franchises or even provinces to try to outdo each other financially - not within that age-group anyway.

Boys at school were typically offered ITM Cup development contracts that was glorified pocket money, with the expectation they would study or work while they went through a two-year academy programme. A handful would sometimes be offered full ITM Cup contracts worth about $15,000 a year.

In much of New Zealand, the situation hasn't changed dramatically. Auckland is different. It is, arguably, the world's biggest talent pool of collision-sport athletes. It's a bazaar for all football codes and the competition has created inflationary pressures.

"It's a lot more aggressive," says Auckland Rugby high performance manager Ant Strachan. "I think what we are seeing is a lot more competition and a lot more people being proactive, be it Super Rugby, ITM Cup, NRL or even AFL.

"It's a bit of a concern that players, sometimes even in Year 12, are being targeted. We [Auckland Rugby] believe strongly they should be left alone to focus on playing for their first XV, making New Zealand Secondary Schools and, more importantly, passing a few exams. We want education to come first.

"The market has become over-inflated and, as a consequence, so can the egos of some of the players when silly money is involved."

Steven Luatua, who helped Mt Albert Grammar win the Auckland schools title in 2009, was approached by NRL scouts. Photo / Getty Images

The New Zealand Rugby Players' Association are conscious of the increased competition for schoolboy players and have aired similar views to Auckland Rugby.

"It's an area of real concern," says NZRPA chief executive Rob Nichol. "Young players end up with an inflated opinion of their worth and inflated expectations but, when it all settles down, someone has got to be there to pick them up and manage their confidence. When talks start, some of the parents have dollar signs flashing in their eyes."

The bigger concern, however, is the next step in this evolving market is for rugby to no longer enter the schoolboy fray through the front door.

Perhaps because the game is in its infancy professionally, or maybe because egalitarian values run through its core, rugby has tended to take a long-term view with regard to talent development.

Pastoral care has been an integral component of the system, which is why rugby recruitment has largely been transparent, open, honest and collaborative.

The NZRPA sends high-profile members to talk to schools. Agents, nearly all of whom are accredited and credible, involve coaches and parents in career discussions and contract options and a relatively small fraternity works with limited friction to put the interests of the athlete first.

Given the power base of rival codes such as the NRL and AFL is in Australia, they tend to operate differently - more opportunistically and transactionally.

They see what they want and tend to go right at. They haven't seen the need to play the long game of building relationships with the schools themselves.

Current All Black Steven Luatua remembers when he was coming off the field after a New Zealand Secondary Schools game when he was accosted by an NRL scout who seemed eager to sign him there and then. When he said, 'no thanks', the scout scurried off to hit up another target.

"I have heard some crazy stories," St Kentigern first XV coach Tai Lavea told NZ Rugby World magazine in 2012, "about the amount of money that has been offered [by NRL clubs] to young players, guys still at school. In some cases, it has been as high as A$80,000.

"There's obviously no relationship between rugby and rugby league because the latter come in the back door. They go straight to the players and the parents and make some attractive offers."

Rugby has viewed that approach as a little predatory, given statistics show only 26 per cent of those who play in the NRL's under-20 competition make it to the next level and the average length of career when they do is just 43 games - a period in which the average annual income is $100,000.

Rugby's model has been to load the contracts later in the process.

There's no real money to be made at academy or even ITM Cup level, but most players who make it to Super Rugby can expect to earn well into six figures until retirement.

Simplified - rugby asks for some short-term pain for a better chance of long-term gain. Rugby has pushed holistic development through the academy programmes and preached patience with regard to promoting players to Super Rugby. League tends to be more about instant gratification.

"You can shout that from the roof tops," says Kirwan, "but it's pretty hard to get people to listen when they have $40,000 in front of them."

And this is the worry for rugby. There's so much competition for players, particularly in Auckland which has produced about 30 per cent of the current Super Rugby stock in New Zealand, that ethics will be compromised.

"We don't want to see any developing trend that is detrimental to the athlete," Nichol says. "We don't want to see competition for players that undermines the system and leads to irresponsible expenditure of the pool of money set aside to pay players."

- Herald on Sunday

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