Lights, camera, action - and the focus is on the next generation of stars auditioning for a role in pro rugby, writes Gregor Paul

Auckland's 1A schoolboy championship kicked off yesterday, and on the minds of the 250-plus boys involved was the thought they were taking their first steps towards a professional career.

No doubt many of their parents have convinced themselves of this, too, and who could blame them?

There were TV cameras at every game. St Peter's College's match with Auckland Grammar was streamed live on Auckland Rugby's new dedicated first XV youtube channel, and Mt Albert Grammar and Sacred Heart, playing the curtainraiser to the Blues game at Eden Park, were live on Sky.

At both games, all games in fact, there would have been the watching eyes of provincial union academy managers, NRL equivalents, Super Rugby scouts and agents - always agents, there hoping to persuade almost anyone with a bit of talent that the big time awaits.

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Schoolboy rugby has lost some of its purity. First XV rugby is not so much now about young men driven by pride in their school and love of the game.

Principals across Auckland and the country dismiss the idea schools have lost the battle to keep their best players grounded and rugby in some kind of context but it's an argument they are finding increasingly hard to make stick.

There is, as the Herald revealed in its investigation of the 1A competition in 2013, extensive luring of good rugby players between schools. There are succession plans for first XVs, good money paid to coaches who are not teachers and rugby scholarships are believed to far outnumber those offered for artistic or academic pursuits.

Budgets for first XVs can be $50,000 a season and, in some cases, significantly more. And that doesn't include the capital expense on gyms, fitness coaches and technological resources.

First XV has probably become a more important stepping stone on the professional pathway than the ITM Cup. It's almost certainly an area of the game with greater commercial and audience potential than the ITM Cup.

What students and parents are also increasingly aware of is that recruitment patterns are changing, and fast. Super Rugby sides are now sniffing about first XV in a way they never were.

Last year, the Blues contracted Rieko Ioane when he was still at Auckland Grammar and they have also signed Sam Nock, who left St Kentigern College only last year.

The Chiefs and Hurricanes Development teams played on Thursday night and both were stacked with players who were first XV stars in 2014.

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Auckland's competition is probably the most intense in the country but it's not on its own when it comes to player and parental attitudes and ambition.

Christchurch and Wellington are believed to be looking into emulating Auckland's youtube broadcast model and Hamilton Boys' High School and Otago Boys' High School are talent production factories in their own right.

No one disputes first XV rugby is moving closer to the college system in the US. Schools are using their rugby teams as a recruitment tool and the importance of winning has been elevated due to heavy media exposure.

That creates a cyclical effect. Selection is moved out of the reach of some boys who previously would have been good enough to play first XV and those who make it are thrust into a pseudo-professional environment that builds their expectations about making rugby a career.

Sacred Heart's Taniela Tupou was turned into a global youtube sensation overnight last year after his try-scoring exploits were captured on TV and the increased volume of broadcast content is likely to unearth more potential stars and push first XV further down the path towards US college football.

Taniela Tupou. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Taniela Tupou. Photo / Sarah Ivey

The debate is not whether this is happening - it's about whether this is an opportunity or a threat.

The prevailing view among Auckland's schools is that it is an opportunity - an
opportunity in the sense that the horse has already bolted and the challenge now is to make sure it runs in the right direction.

They can't dissuade either the boys or their parents that professional rugby is a long shot, so they might as well do what they can to ensure those going down that route are at least informed and prepared.

In determining whether they should sign up to Auckland Rugby's new TV venture, the majority of the 1A principals felt there was potentially one overwhelmingly important by-product to this increased exposure of first XV rugby - that it could inspire younger boys to be active. Physical inactivity remains a serious issue among Auckland secondary schools, with nearly half not involved in any sport at all.

"It will bring some perspective of what secondary school rugby looks like at the senior level and I think that will activate younger kids to participate," said King's College headmaster Michael Leach, also head of the Auckland Secondary Schools Heads Association. "I think they will be motivated by what they see and will aspire to play. It's a great competition and a great way for young men to express themselves without that aggressiveness we sometimes see in the adult world."

That's pretty much it in regard to the positives. The whole premise of schools being implicit in driving first XV rugby towards a US college model is that they say it's going to happen with or without them and it would be better if it was the former.

The negatives about the direction first XV rugby is taking are more extensive and serious.
In the current edition of NZ Rugby World, Drug Free Sport chief executive Graham Steel talks of his concerns about the preconditions of first XV rugby being almost perfect to foster a culture of drug-taking.

He also talks more widely about the culture of expectation and the need for schools to help players cope emotionally and mentally.

"The pressure is on these young kids to perform which they may be prepared for physically and technically but not culturally and psychologically," Steel says. "I think the schools need to have a sense of responsibility around helping these kids holistically."

One school that has taken a contrary stance is Mt Albert Grammar, which hasn't signed up to First XV TV. They don't want TV cameras coming to the school because, principal Dale Burden, says: "We think it's a bit too much. We are talking about 15, 16 and 17-year-old boys and we want them to have some balance at school so they don't think rugby is their life. Once in a while is OK [games being filmed] but we don't want it too much."

Dale Burden, headmaster of Mount Albert Grammar school. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Dale Burden, headmaster of Mount Albert Grammar school. Photo / Sarah Ivey

The disproportionate importance it places on rugby is only part of the reason Mt Albert don't want cameras at their grounds.

The other big factor is that Burden is "sick and tired of agents and the rubbish they talk".
"Some of the absolute drivel they tell boys and their families is so far off the mark and the kids believe it. I say to the pupils that, whatever advice they need, there will almost certainly be someone within the school well qualified to give it."

At the moment, Burden is a lone dissenting voice. The rest of Auckland and the country
appear resigned to the prospect of increasing numbers of boys going to school with the exclusive and express goal of becoming a professional rugby player.

This volume of filmed games and direct Super Rugby recruitment out of first XV seems an inevitable progression of professionalism. Maybe this was always going to happen and New Zealand should be congratulated for having some kind of control and regulation.

The New Zealand Rugby Players' Association recently hired former All Blacks halfback Kevin Senio to work with schools around the country and advise young players about what they will need to do if they want to transition into the professional ranks.

But before there is too much self-congratulation, Burden makes a point that is impossible to ignore and alludes to how easily the current set-up could slip from being opportunity to threat.

"Secondary school sport remains 100 per cent pure," he says. "When you watch it, you see the players are not frightened of making mistakes. That's how they learn and they are not inhibited. But I wonder if that will still be the case when games are being live-streamed or put on highlights packages."

It's getting harder to persuade students and their parents they are dreaming if they think they are already on the way to the big time.

Statistics, if ever they were an antidote, aren't so much now. In 2013, the data showed those boys who made the New Zealand Secondary Schools team had a 60 per cent chance of going on to the ITM Cup. Of those 60 per cent, about one-third make it to Super Rugby and, from there, about seven per cent will become All Blacks.

Compared with trying to crack the NFL or football's English Premier League, those odds are remarkably attractive. That the chances of becoming an All Black are relatively slim doesn't particularly matter - first XV is viewed as a golden opportunity to get a foot on the first rung of the professional ladder.

There's a fulfilling career to be had and plenty of money to be made without ever being an All Black. Players don't even need to get close to end up with a paid-off house, cash in the bank, a modicum of fame and a lifetime of good memories.

Besides, no one really studies the numbers. Not like that, anyway. Schoolboys build their knowledge through rumour, half-stories and perception. They hear about this kid and that kid and a picture forms that the professional game is within reach.

It ends up seeming like contracts are being dealt out fairly liberally and, to an extent, perception isn't too far from the truth. Each year in Auckland, between 20 and 30 first XV players will end up with some kind of contract.

For all that, Auckland are hammered for not being able to develop players, yet about 40 per cent of those contracted to play in Super Rugby came through the 1A Championship.

The numbers may be providing false hope but they are providing hope and, yesterday, whether theyhave any kind of chance of making it or not, 250-plus young men and their parents convinced themselves they took their first step towards rugby's professional ranks.