When I played rugby there was only one thing I was good at. Jumping in the lineouts. I'm talking primary school kids' rugby, which I played with a passion and was selected as a Wellington rep for, two years running.

The same age group in which the North Harbour union has decided not to let its kids play at representative level.

I wasn't very fast or strong and I could never fool anyone when I tried to step them. I longed to score tries but if you passed me the ball in a pressure moment I would probably drop it.

At lineout time, though, I had good timing and springs in my legs. In the rep trials, I would get moved from the Probables to the Possibles, then back to the Probables. Whichever team I was in, I won the lineout.


So I was a lock. Colin Meads should have been my hero, but I was too skinny to identify with a man called Pinetree. I was merely a stick. His brother Stan was more my type. Look him up. The forgotten Meads. He was an All Black, too.

Later I coached kids, in Wellington and then in Auckland, and some of them tried for the rep teams, too.

North Harbour says it wants to encourage more participation, which is urgent, and the key to that is enjoyment, which is true. It says representative rugby distorts the appeal of the game for children.

I don't know. As a coach I always thought the regular season was for everyone and the rep season was to stretch the more able and determined kids. Regular season and rep games: they complemented each other.

But I also knew rep rugby isn't what many people think it is. In Wellington, a parent who was high up in sports funding told me only one in 20 adult players at provincial level had been selected for a rep team as a child. Rep competitions like Auckland's Roller Mills are not necessarily a pathway to the top.

There are lots of reasons. Kids develop at different speeds. They change their passions. Talent isn't always obvious. As for the obvious, precocious talent, if that's all it takes I reckon I coached at least a dozen kids who had enough of it to become All Blacks. Didn't happen.

There was one kid, though, in a team where I was assistant coach. A quiet boy, very polite, tall for his age but without standing out. He had a couple of mates who were big, strong and fast and were surely destined for great things, but this other boy was not like that.

Still, he always turned up and everyone liked him. We put him at lock.


Most of his mates from that team aren't playing any longer. But he is. He's an All Black. And co-captain of the Blues.

Patrick Tuipulotu, the kid you could see had reservations about pain – receiving it and inflicting it – has learned how to rampage up the field ball in hand, just like Colin Meads, and how to stop players with a thumping, arms-wrapped full body-slam tackle, and how to be a leader.

I'm incredibly proud of him and I love watching him play. He's obviously hard as nails but I can see through the beard and he still looks, somehow, soft. It's beguiling.

Did I have anything to do with how good he's become? Not at all.

Was he a Roller Mills rep? He might have been, I'm not sure. But put it this way: it wasn't obvious, when he was 12, that he would have been.

And he didn't need to be. It was his high school, St Peters, that set Paddy on his rugby career.

As for me, what did I get for playing rugby with that special mix of determination, nervousness and sheer magnificent fun given to children, all those years ago? The tragic commitment to get up at 2am on Sunday, that's what, and watch my team play in the bright sunshine against the Sharks in Durban. And lose.

Paddy led from the front, until they took him off, but they had a terrible first half, playing like a bunch of strangers who thought they were better than they really are. Like some rep teams.

Then in the second half they played for each other, like mates. They did so many things so well, even if it wasn't quite well enough.

Still, this is the little team that will and I am still one of the hopeful.

As for the rep experience, I remember the tough training and the tougher games, the first-five-eighth from Porirua who was better than anyone my age I'd ever seen. Who did not become an All Black either. Playing in the bleak sunshine at Athletic Park in the curtain raiser to the curtain raiser.

But what I mostly remember is what I loved: the week in week out of the ordinary season. It's not because I was a rep that I got up at 2am yesterday. It's because of all those Saturday mornings, lacing up my boots with my mates.

North Harbour, it seems to me, has taken away less than might be feared. And if it will make the game more loved by more kids – if that's true – then it's to the good.

But is that true? I'm not sure we know, yet.