As the All Blacks take to the field against England tonight, the school that "saved" Jonah Lomu's life will be cheering for tighthead prop Nepo Laulala.

Wesley College, near Pukekohe, has produced 12 All Blacks including Lomu, Laulala, Laulala's brother Casey Laulala and Stephen Donald, who kicked the winning penalty in the 2011 Rugby World Cup final against France.

About 300 ex-students and staff are gathering this weekend to celebrate the college's 175th birthday, making it New Zealand's oldest surviving secondary school.

Wesley College's 1st XV front row in 2010 (from left) Karl Tuinukuafe, Laiseni Kakato and Nepo Laulala. Photo / Dean Purcell
Wesley College's 1st XV front row in 2010 (from left) Karl Tuinukuafe, Laiseni Kakato and Nepo Laulala. Photo / Dean Purcell

Laulala's older brother Robert Laulala says it has turned around many lives.

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"The school takes troubled students every year," he said.

"They change a lot of lives and get them on the road away from, I suppose, prison, where they might have been heading.

Nepo Laulala is one of 12 All Blacks who have come out of Wesley College in the school's 175-year history. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Nepo Laulala is one of 12 All Blacks who have come out of Wesley College in the school's 175-year history. Photo / Mark Mitchell

"I saw first-hand how some of those kids changed when I became a senior of the school. I know one example - there was a kid that went on to become dux of the school. He was really, really a troubled kid. I think they still do that well."

Lomu himself told Warren Adler in his 2004 autobiography that he "was saved by school sport and Chris Grinter" - then Wesley's deputy headmaster and first XV coach, now principal of Rotorua Boys' High School.

Jonah Lomu said he was
Jonah Lomu said he was "saved by school sport and Chris Grinter" (above). Photo / File

"It didn't take Chris very long to recognise that I had arrived at Wesley with an attitude. He decided I needed to channel my anger and aggression in a more positive way," Lomu wrote.

"The answer was simple. He went out and bought me a punching bag."

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Lomu's mother Hepi Lomu said she sent Jonah to Wesley in 1989 after an upsurge of gang violence near their Māngere home.

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"There was lots of killing, one to the other, it looked like it was Samoans versus Tongans at that time. I was really scared, maybe something happened," she said.

Jonah Lomu in action for the All Blacks against England in the semifinal at the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Photo / File
Jonah Lomu in action for the All Blacks against England in the semifinal at the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Photo / File

The family applied twice unsuccessfully before they could get Jonah into Wesley.

"They needed to sort it out, maybe we could afford to pay," she said.

"At that time we were both working, but at times it was not much money in our hands and we were buying our house at the same time.

"We tried to cut down what we want and especially we pay for his school fees."

Jonah went to Wesley in the third form (Year 9), but his younger brother John didn't go until sixth-form when the family could afford it. John Lomu said the boarding school instilled "family values" and created lifetime friendships.

"I believe Wesley basically grounded me," he said. "It gave me direction, really, as to where you wanted to be."

John Lomu, pictured (front left) with Sir Michael Jones at the naming of Jonah Lomu Drive at Paerata last year, says Wesley College
John Lomu, pictured (front left) with Sir Michael Jones at the naming of Jonah Lomu Drive at Paerata last year, says Wesley College "basically grounded me". Photo / File

The college was founded by a land grant in Grafton from Governor Robert FitzRoy in October 1844 for what was originally called the Wesleyan Native Institution, 25 years before Auckland Grammar opened to educate European settlers' sons.

For 175 years it has had a unique place in our educational landscape - charging boarders $7300 a year, but with a roll that is now 98 per cent Māori and Pacific drawn from low-income areas giving it the poorest decile-1 rating in the school funding system.

Ethnically, the school has changed dramatically over the years. Rev Ian Faulkner, who was principal from 2003-14 and compiled the school history, says the first 10 students in 1844 were Māori from as far away as Kāwhia and the Hokianga.

"These were men, rather than boys - some were married - selected because they had shown promise as leaders," he wrote.

Wesley College Year 12 students in front of the Denton Hall dormitory, from left Blake Ngamu Mackey, Siosuia Tu'uta and Jope Ratu. Photo / Eliejar Kiole, Supplied
Wesley College Year 12 students in front of the Denton Hall dormitory, from left Blake Ngamu Mackey, Siosuia Tu'uta and Jope Ratu. Photo / Eliejar Kiole, Supplied

But the roll dropped with rising land tensions in the 1850s and the school took in orphans and destitute children from the European settler community, and later merged with a school started in 1850 for Wesleyan missionaries' children. It moved from Grafton to Three Kings in 1849 and to Paerata, near Pukekohe, in 1922.

National Party frontbencher Todd McClay says that by the time he arrived as a sixth-former in 1984, Māori and Pacific students made up about half the roll and the other half were mostly European farmers' sons attracted, like him, by the school's farm.

Todd McClay says he became a good rugby player thanks to the
Todd McClay says he became a good rugby player thanks to the "intense" rugby played at Wesley College. Photo / File

"It was a robust place," he said. "It bred great rugby players. I went on to play for King Country Colts and Wellington Colts. I firmly believe it was the result of the rugby at Wesley College because it was just so intense and at such a high level."

By 2005, when Faulkner wrote an initial history, the roll was 57 per cent Māori and 37 per cent Pacific.

Today 72 per cent of the 366 students are Pasifika, 26 per cent Māori and 2 per cent European. More than half the roll is Tongan - which long-serving deputy principal Chris Bean says is partly Lomu's legacy.

Chris Bean, a Wesley College student from 1982-88 and a teacher there since 1993, says Jonah Lomu's fame has attracted more Pacific students to the school. Photo / File
Chris Bean, a Wesley College student from 1982-88 and a teacher there since 1993, says Jonah Lomu's fame has attracted more Pacific students to the school. Photo / File

"It's a school that attracted quite an extensive base of different cultures, particularly in the last 20 years, and more so with the success of Jonah and the strong Methodist link through the Pacific, especially in Tonga," he said.

The college is the only school owned by the Methodist Church in New Zealand and current principal Dr Brian Evans, who wrote his doctoral thesis on Pacific boys' achievement, said the trust board used income from its land holdings to reduce boarding fees for needy students to around $3000-$4000.

Brian Evans (centre), pictured with rugby players when he was principal of Kelston Boys' High School, has written a thesis on Pacific boys' educational achievement. Photo / File
Brian Evans (centre), pictured with rugby players when he was principal of Kelston Boys' High School, has written a thesis on Pacific boys' educational achievement. Photo / File

Girls were admitted in 1984, but still make up only 22 per cent of the roll because there is only one girls' hostel compared with five for boys.

Wesley College Year 9 girls, from left: Samara Poland, Sara Unasa, Tatyana Riley, Rosaline Tupaia, Genevieve Taepa-Kihi, Kalisi Fisiiahi, Angel Greener, Gypsy Poland. Photo / Eliejar Kiole, Supplied
Wesley College Year 9 girls, from left: Samara Poland, Sara Unasa, Tatyana Riley, Rosaline Tupaia, Genevieve Taepa-Kihi, Kalisi Fisiiahi, Angel Greener, Gypsy Poland. Photo / Eliejar Kiole, Supplied

The trust board is now developing a 4000-unit housing project on the school farm, Paerata Rise. It plans to use the profits to rebuild a bigger $100 million school on part of the site for 600 students - 300 boys and 300 girls - and to reduce fees further for needy students.

The Wesley College chapel will be preserved for community use in the new Paerata Rise village centre when the college moves to a new site about 300 metres to the south. Photo / Supplied
The Wesley College chapel will be preserved for community use in the new Paerata Rise village centre when the college moves to a new site about 300 metres to the south. Photo / Supplied