Jim Lonergan is six weeks into his new role as the chief executive of College Sport. The former long-time chairman of the Auckland Secondary Schools Rugby Union sat down with the Herald to talk all things college sport in the wider Auckland region, and outlined his vision for schools rugby.
You had 33 years at Macleans College. Why the change?
This was an exciting challenge that came up. I wasn't looking at leaving, but it suited what I've been doing over a number of years, with experience in several sports. I've been involved in rugby a lot, but I ran the Auckland (schools) road race out at Macleans for a number of years, with up to 800 athletes, and I've been involved in triathlon and touch.
You'll have a grasp, then, of some of the issues involved in around 45 sports, 107 schools and more than 100,000 school athletes that come under the College Sport umbrella?
I've dealt with a lot of principals and deputy principals and been in the education centre. It is important to actually know how schools run, and schools still want ownership of that college sport. Personal relationships with senior management make a difference. There are still some difficult discussions ahead, but communication is what it is all about. If you can talk things through, you can often get it resolved.
Have you had a chat to your predecessor Dave Currie?
I had a weekly regular meeting with Dave in the eight weeks before he left, so there was a really good handover and we worked together for his final week. We appreciate what Dave has done. When he took over, the organisation was losing money. He brought us into this new complex at Sport Central, which is great for my staff working with other sports people, and it's a lot more central.
Do you see College Sport's role as a governance one or facilitator, given that some sports are not directly administered by College Sport?
Not all sports are the same. The bylaws we've brought in, we try to have a model that is consistent, but that can't work for everything, so we are there to overall manage sport. Our main thing is running it for all the sports and their participating students.
The big challenges in Auckland are transport and accessibility to venues. We've got problems in some of our indoor sports in just getting facilities where we can run them on hubs. Obviously running them in school gyms is great, but they are not big enough to have multiple teams there. The bigger stadiums like Bruce Pulman Park (Papakura), Trusts Stadium (Waitakere), great facilities on the North Shore, but trying to get greater Auckland to participate in those areas is extremely difficult.
Some sports already play their competitions on days other than Saturday to offer more flexibility.
Certainly. Basically every night of the week there is something on. That's the only way you can run it, but after school is the problem of getting across Auckland, so more and more we are trying to have local hubs and then at the top level moving into greater Auckland competitions.
Is there a temptation to spend most of your time on premier sport, when that is just a smallish percentage of all school sport?
This time of the year most of the premier sports are finished, so we are reviewing, and we've just been through sanctioning sports for next year. There are some disappointed sports that haven't been sanctioned. As a guideline for sanctioning, there should be a minimum of 20 schools and at least 200 competitors. But there must also be a good organisation behind it. In some cases, there are good NSOs (national sport organisations) behind it and they put out huge support. So the old days of College Sport running everything, we can't do that, we need NSOs or the providers, but we are still hands-on for the big events, like athletics.
The RSTs (regional sports trusts) more and more have an important role. Part of that is the development of coaches. We are finding that with an older teaching force, there are less teachers that are available to coach. If we can rely on students to upskill and coach, umpire and referee, the RSTs are keen to be involved there and it is probably outside of our role.
So after 5-6 weeks in the job, what are schools and parents telling you about the main issues, other than transport?
There is concern about affordability. Some of the questions brought up are 'What are we actually spending money on when we get kids to compete in sport? Where is the money going?' There is concern that in some sports the money goes to the national body or the provincial body. In most cases there is justification for it, if they, for instance, are training up referees. But we need to look into that in depth and most sports need to justify what their charges are.
College Sport stepped in to run a Counties Manukau schools netball module in Manurewa in 2016. Is there any resolution for that next year?
We have a plan to run it again, depending on what costs come through. There is a possibility that Bruce Pulman Park might be available, so we will work with Netball Counties Manukau. Costs are an issue, particularly in south Auckland, and they can't be too high. By us running it, it is a lot cheaper.
Year 14s returning mainly for sport was recently highlighted. Is this is an issue for College Sport or is it more an isolated concern with individual schools?
Year 14s returning for sport is not a common occurrence in Auckland. In rugby, there is a maximum of two Under 19 students (Year 14s) in a First XV squad. These students can't be new to school or non-domestic students. The football situation (with Mt Roskill Grammar) has led to a number of principals suggesting this by-law be introduced across all premier sports.
Is the study-sport balance still being skewed at some schools?
There is a danger of that. Over-training is not good, and all the research shows that specialising in one sport is not good. Some schools or coaches push their sport too much and there are excessive numbers of practices in some cases, but it is decreasing. Schools now understand that some will go and make a professional career out of sport, but it is only a small percentage of students. Study should be first, and even now a number of our top sports schools understand that.
Is College Sport on board with the Drug Free Sport NZ initiative to give top school athletes specialist free clean sport education from 2017?
Certainly. NZSSSC (New Zealand schools sports council) have targeted 100 schools across the country, which includes a number in Auckland. Overseas we are seeing more and more of it. It is about education in the first instance, but we do have to be able to look at bringing in random testing. We do, however, want to work with schools. We don't want to be walking into schools without principals' permission. They have to have buy-in.
And the use of supplements is a talking point these days.
That's probably a bigger concern than the steroid issue. There will be some students on steroids, it would be naïve to say they aren't, but certainly the benefits of supplements has to be taught to these students.
How much are some school sports programmes driven by the ego of principals and is that just a matter of College Sport working closely with those schools/principals?
Some schools do target sport and that's part of their marketing, and good on them. For many schools, every premier sport is not what they are aiming for, but some schools are trying to be the best in all. But they do have to play by the rules and that's why we look at the bylaws for tweaking every now and then. I think the bylaws are robust now. What we have brought out in our latest review is an integrity statement. There has to be a trust model, not a punishment model. That comes from the top. If we get buy-in from all principals and it goes all the way to NZSSSC, there will be better performance.
As a former long-time chairman of the ASSRU, what is your vision for schools rugby in this region for the next 2-3 years?
Certainly, numbers in rugby have increased overall, but there have been drops at secondary school level, and that is a concern, particularly in two (of three) provinces. A few years ago I would have said stick strictly within your provinces. We've had a greater Auckland competition in fifth grade or Under 69kg and there have been some benefits in that, though there are also huge transport issues. That grade will be in for 2017, as I understand it. This year and last year Counties Manukau brought some teams into that grade, which was outside the agreement, but certainly Auckland wanted that and it suited Counties. If you have small numbers of a teams in a grade, if you can combine two regions it makes for a viable competition.
So I believe we still have to have a localised competition to start with, but at the very top level, across First XV, long-term, having a greater Auckland competition has some real merits and perhaps across another grade like Under 15 it would have real merit as well.
The 1A format seems to work well from a rugby standpoint, in a 13-week window, including playoffs, and with promotion-relegation. Is it your view that any change to a wider Auckland 1A competition could be in place by 2018 or 2019?
The alternative, and this is where the discussions are at presently, is you could have all First XVs in the region, in A, B and C grades, having the chance to play each other, but not every week, perhaps in a holiday window, at Queen's Birthday or in July. That's one of the views of NZ Rugby, but there are some entrenched views and it does take time. With the goodwill of everyone, change does have to occur. You can't just do what you've done for the last few decades.
The 1A competition is probably the best First XV competition in the country, if not the world. But if you look at the 1B, there are a number of All Blacks who have played in that, and Auckland and the Blues consistently put out students from those teams. So having a strong 1A competition is important, but so are those feeder comps. But it's no use having blowouts in games.
Whangarei BHS competed well this season in the North Harbour 1A, while Wesley in the CNI and the new Counties Manukau/Waikato competitions seemed to work well.
Rugby has been the one that's been outside other premier schools sports, such as football and cricket (which have pan-Auckland competitions). A few years ago I would have been opposed to it, but I see it as the only way to keep those numbers up and keeping the competition more viable. When you look at the 1A, probably eight teams, not always the same ones every year, are probably very equal, as are the bottom four and the top of the 1B, so a total restructure is a possibility.
Are you happy with the schools rugby administration within the three unions?
Certainly, long-term we would like more involvement with each of those unions. Netball and rugby probably sit outside College Sport. They do all their own entries and draws. It would be ideal to get both netball and rugby under the College Sport band.
Football, for instance, is working much closer with us now.
That six-game stand-down bylaw for First XV rugby seems to be a good deterrent to poaching. Is it still working well for the most part?
Yes, it has balanced out really well. Other sports are keen on the model. Rugby is now Under 18 with a maximum of two Under 19s. A number of principals have approached us to bring that in for all premier sports. That is something we could look at for 2018, but it needs consultation. There is justification for students coming back at Under 19 age to complete exams, not to stack a team. In some cases, there are genuine reasons for moves, say, from east to west, or north to south. There are parents who are shifting.
There are seven on the ASSHA board, four principals and three independents. Is that working well?
Yes, it's always good to have independent board members. Input from a different perspective is always handy.
And are you enjoying things so far?
Yes, I'm learning, but it's about meeting as many people as possible within the schools and the sports. I've got out and seen kilikiti, tag, waka ama, events that unfortunately I had not seen before, and there are some passionate people supporting these sports. But it's also the kids, and they've been right into it. We have to keep that going.
There are also good intra-models in some schools. They are providing sports for new immigrants within their schools, and it would be nice to use that model for crossovers. If we can increase participation, particularly with students that aren't playing sport at present, in terms of health, that makes a huge difference.