Did anyone else hear the Auckland Blues' flanker Dalton Papali'i say on TV he wouldn't be where he is today (on the verge of an All Black career) if he hadn't been grabbed by St Kentigern College?

I'm sure I heard it but it was so quick I can't be sure. I wanted to hear a lot more but if the reporter had asked him to elaborate, the news editor obviously didn't think it important. St Kentigern was the villain in this year's school rugby poaching story.

St Kent's sounds like an interesting school. It's made itself an academy for more sports than rugby. I was watching Chelsea Cup tennis at our club one evening recently and got talking to the parents of a young woman playing in our team, Kelly Drew. They said the same thing, she wouldn't have got to where she did (playing college tennis in the United States) if she hadn't gone to St Kent's.


Many of the players in the just-completed Chelsea Cup, the North Shore's top tennis competition, this year were at St Kent's, or at Westlake Boys or Girls' High Schools or one of very few other schools where talented juniors can go to learn the game in the company of others as good and keen as them.

At the same time, one or two high schools nearby can not muster a tennis team, I hear, and have not many boys playing rugby either. Basketball is the big game at Rangitoto College, for example. Should anyone be worried? Not to my way of thinking, not if there are plenty of opportunities for students to get into a school that most suits their talents whether those be sporting, musical, literary, scientific, entrepreneurial, theatrical ... the more the better.

But my way of thinking is clearly not shared by those making education policy for the present Government or, to my surprise, by the Auckland rugby fraternity. When rival schools threatened not to play with St Kents this season because it was finding a way around their agreed poaching restrictions, just about everybody who commented on the issue sided with its rivals.

St Kents huddle in a match against Mt Albert Grammar College last year. St Kents has been praised as an environment for young sports talent. Photo / Photosport
St Kents huddle in a match against Mt Albert Grammar College last year. St Kents has been praised as an environment for young sports talent. Photo / Photosport

They were concerned that the First XVs of other schools were losing their best players, thus depriving lesser players of the benefits of playing with the best, and they were most concerned that the Auckland's premier secondary schools' rugby competition was becoming less evenly matched. What astonished me was the almost total exclusion of consideration of the talented individual.

The same is true of education in general. Educational theorists are always telling us the state school system is designed to ensure every child can reach his or her potential. But they don't mean it. They care much more about children as a collective called schools than they do about them as individuals. The recommendations of the task force that has reviewed the system for Education Minister Chris Hipkins are all about the interests of schools.

Everything in the task force's scheme is designed to reduce distinctions between schools and limit parents' choice so that all schools might retain the numbers of pupils and range of abilities in their locality.

Educational egalitarians argue that talented individuals also do well in that environment. But the testimony of Dalton Papali'i, a standout player for his previous school's First XV, suggests they do not do as well as they could. On the 1News website he is quoted saying of St Kent's, "I love that school. If it wasn't for that school I wouldn't be here. I would probably be a tradie or something."

He said the school had "a winning culture" and he felt it gave him "professionalism at a young age". Kelly Drew told me the same thing. Winning meant everything there, she said.


But clearly not quite everything because she is also a thoroughly pleasant young woman. In fact, all the young products of school tennis academies that I have watched on our courts during this Chelsea Cup have been not just controlled accurate players (rare in teenage tennis) but have displayed strong, calm professional temperaments, which did not used to be characteristic of our sport.

The same can be said of Dalton Papali'i on the evidence of his TV appearance with Caleb Clarke after the Blues beat the Waratahs. Both sounded like well-rounded, well-grounded individuals and Papali'i, the more confident speaker, made sure his team mate got equal time.

I'm not sure a winning culture and professionalism are among the values approved for schools by educational egalitarians but I'm glad we have schools that develop those attributes and I hope they do not become confined to private schools. That is what may happen if all state schools become places of general mediocrity, subservient to "hubs" of central power.

Really, we need more like St Kent's.