Secondary School sport is vital for New Zealand sport. In many countries this is not the case as almost all development comes through the club system, rather than at schools.
It was the importance of school sport that led to the New Zealand Secondary Schools Sports Council creating Winter Tournament in late August or early September to allow the continuation of Tournaments that under the three term year were held at the same time of the year in the first week of the longer holiday between term 2 and 3.
I write this from Dunedin where I am with the Collegiate Girls Hockey team who I do some fitness work with. The benefits for motels, airlines and rental vehicle hire companies is clearly visible with Dunedin hosting hockey, football and ice hockey tournaments.
This scene is repeated throughout the country bringing clear economic benefits to venues throughout New Zealand. Whanganui will gain benefit from the summer equivalent when the North Island Schools are hosted at Cooks Gardens in early April following on from the success of the Secondary Schools Triathlon earlier this year.
Next week's annual Round the lake Relay although not in Tournament Week will again bring active school age athletes to enjoy the best of Whanganui. The relay brings the curtain down on the winter running season. The Wanganui Harrier Club ran a fun event at the same venue last Saturday in preparation for the annual Marton to Whanganui Relay which enters its impressive .87th year.
Although a youngster in comparison Round the Lake enters its 39th year making it the oldest school relay of its type in the country. Over its history thousands of young athletes have run around Whanganui's wonderful Virginia Lake and it is clear that the venue is part of the enduring attraction of the event.
Numbers have dropped a little this year but nevertheless we still have 20 schools involved with almost 100 teams taking part. The largest drop has come has come at Intermediate School level where I suspect a clash has arisen with the AIMS Games in Tauranga. We are 8 schools down on last year in this grade as opposed to only three less at Secondary level. The later Tournament week has almost certainly had an influence on our numbers.
Except for Scots College the strong Secondary School contenders have returned. Regular winners Wellington College come in force as does New Plymouth Boys High School and they should be involved in an epic team battle in the senior and Year 9 boys. In the junior boys (under 16) host school Wanganui Collegiate comes into the mix spearheaded by recently named New Zealand Schools team member Liam Back. His Collegiate team who took silver in the 3 to score event at the New Zealand Schools in June will provide a strong challenge but much will depend on the fourth runner in each team.
Wanganui Collegiate took bronze in both the three and six to score team event at Year 9 level and silver in both team events at senior level and should therefore be competitive.
They will however, meet strong opposition from Napier Girls, New Plymouth Girls, Sacred Heart New Plymouth and strong contingent from Wellington East Girls and Wellington College.
The relay is very much a team event. However, Bates watchmaker has again sponsored the prize for the fastest first runner in the combined first leg of both the boys and girls Senior and Junior A race. The outstanding New Zealand representative Hannah O'Connor (Sacred Heart New Plymouth) last year's girls' winner returns to the Lake. Last year she came within a second of Holly van Dalen's ten year old record. Recent performances suggest that the record could fall this year.
It will be interesting to see how Rebecca Bake (Wanganui High School), who was fourth New Zealand athlete at this year's NZ School's junior race, fares against senior opposition over the shorter 2000 metre leg that should suit Baker. Liam Back although still in the junior ranks should be amongst the leaders in the boys division.
One major encouragement this year is at secondary level we have good representation from local schools supporting the event. Races start at 1.40 pm on Monday with the Year 9 and Intermediate Schools Girls race. The boy's equivalent starts at 2 -25 pm. The aforementioned Senior Girls and Junior race is at 3-10 pm with the boys at 3-55 pm.