A curious thing happened when the Hurricanes Under-18 training squad was recently announced for their annual development camp in Napier.
Traditional powerhouses Wellington College and St Patrick’s College, Silverstream only had a single selection; Wellington loose forward Flynn Crampton.
Scots College haven’t won the Premiership since 2014, and accounted for eight of the 15 selections from the capital.
How can a school that has won just a solitary open weight title in the past four years (Scots second XV are the reigning Premier 4 champions) be so heavily represented in a major representative squad?
What’s going on in Wellington Secondary School rugby? Anecdotally, the standard of the First XV premiership is the worst it’s been. Numbers are falling in most grades and solutions for improvement aren’t necessarily straightforward.
New Zealand Rugby (NZR) is looking to implement a new governance structure for secondary school rugby (this year), to be followed by a new strategy (in 2020) to build player numbers.
Wellington provides a vivid insight into many of the challenges the game faces.
Rugby is decreasing in popularity. Since 2012, boys teams across Wellington have decreased by 18.3%, (minus 20 teams, or around minus 440 players). More alarmingly:
· Since 2012, open weight Premier teams have fallen by 19%, (minus 9 teams).
· Since 2012, non-Premier open weight age-grade teams have fallen by 47%, (minus 17 teams).
Tumbling numbers isn’t just a Wellington trend. Between 2013-2018, the number of teams in Auckland fell from 225 to 181. In North Harbour numbers are even more drastic, with a third of teams vanishing in the past five seasons.
Why are boys not playing rugby? The NZR Secondary Schools Rugby review identified several reasons, the most interesting of which are contained in a student feedback section and include:
The Wellington College First XV is suffering the worst run of results in its history. This season they are in grave danger of missing the top four of the Premiership for the first time.
In the past three years Wellington’s First XV have been the victims of record defeats against Hastings Boys’ High School, St Patrick’s College, Silverstream, Scots College, Nelson College, Christ’s College, Feilding High School and Palmerston North Boys’ High School.
In the past five years Wellington has experienced embarrassing stumbles against Kapiti College, Hutt International Boys’ School and Wairarapa College.
Why should we be concerned? Wellington College is by some distance the capital's largest state boys school and therefore provides a vivid illustration of boys sporting preferences. Wellington has a national reputation for being traditionally powerful in rugby.
Wellington won the Premiership as recently as 2016, which might suggest Wellington is on a temporary rebuilding cycle. However, Wellington losing more games than it wins was almost unthinkable a few short years ago.
Despite having a relatively healthy 10 teams at present, closer inspection of the programme suggests a rapidly weakening First XV was only a matter of time.
Between 2010 and 2016, aside from the First XV, the only open weight title success was the Under-15A’s, which captured the Division I title in 2010.
Contrast that with St Pat’s Town who have won six open weight grades since 2014 and Silverstream, who have won a dozen.
Anecdotally, “small white boys from Khandallah and Kaori” are avoiding rugby like the plague and don’t have the size to compete at the heavier levels.
In 2018, Wellington enjoyed a very fruitful sporting year. Wellington are the national cricket, swimming and futsal champions; a staggering 576 boys play the latter code. Additionally, Wellington athletes won half a dozen medals at the National Track & Field Championships.
Rugby is no longer king at Col.
Non competitive Games
One of the arguments presented in favour of increasing the Premiership grade from eight teams to ten was to expose more players to the highest level and thus boost the standard and competitiveness of the competition. Despite honourable intentions, the opposite has proven true.
Between 2012 and 2016, just under half (84) of all Premiership fixtures were decided by 20 points or more.
Since expansion there have been 130 games of which 77 (59%) have been settled by 20 points or more. On top of that there have been two defaults and a century posted by St Pat’s Town.
This past weekend Kapti was beaten 106-3 by Silverstream in a nonsense of a contest in which Kapti left out half a dozen of their leading players, an acknowledgment they were beaten before they'd started. This Saturday, Hutt International Boys’ School will default their fixture against St Pat’s Town citing a “shortage of player numbers.”
Silverstream have won the Premiership the past two years by an average winning score of 53-7. When Silverstream won in 2012, their average winning score was 23-11. Granted Silverstream upset a formidable Wellington College outfit in the final, but even Wellington’s average winning score that year was only 26-7.
Unusually, between 2010-2015, the school which finished first in the round robin failed to win the Premiership.
The NZR Secondary Schools Rugby Review identified uncompetitive competitions as a major force for driving students away from the game. There were complaints being consistently beaten by large scores results in a loss of enjoyment and motivation.
The review also recommended NZR establishes a clear definition of which grades are considered performance grades, with all other grades recognised as existing primarily to maximise the appeal and benefit to participants.
The shape a ‘high performance’ grade would take is uncertain, but clearly the Wellington Premiership is drifting away from ‘high performance’ with so many one-sided games.
The Rise of Scots College
In 2009, Scots First XV lost to the Wellington College 2nd XV in the Premier II final. Five years later Scots were the National champions.
The only other team at the school to win a grade in that five year period was the 2nd XV who won the lowly Premier 5 grade in 2012 and Premier 4 the next season.
Since 2010, Scots have won a mere six College Sport Wellington grades.
How have Scots, with a small roll (slightly over 500) and little reputation for rugby, become such a force in the First XV Premiership?
The answer is simple: greater coaching resources and more rugby-playing students joining the school.
In 2014, eight players were on scholarship in the Scots starting XV that beat Silverstream 21-18 in the Premiership final.
Under current eligibility rules a First XV is allowed no more than five players that are “new to school.” A “new to school" tag is carried for two years, while internationals never shrug the title. Essentially, done methodically with enough planning and forethought, a third of your team can still be imported.
The best way to consistently build a powerful team with little strength below (Scots don’t even have an Under-15’s side) is to recruit by specific positions or attract top juniors and expose them to superior training while they effectively bide their time making the First XV.
There are, of course, benefits for some boys who gain scholarships, like receiving a better education and coaching. And universally chastising boys and their families for accepting scholarships is nothing more than petulant.
Perhaps the demands of a younger and more complex professional game necessitates programs like Scots. The expertise and resources to prepare players for the next level simply doesn't exist across multiple schools?
There is nothing in the present rules to prevent Scots or others (uninhibited from zoning laws, a whole separate issue) from constructing a First XV in an obviously top-down fashion.
However, having a side monopolise leading talent without any growth in the lower grades appears to harm the game. The NRZ Secondary Schools Rugby review identified scholarships as a factor in driving boys away from the sport.
Inexplicably Scots lost their points from a first round win against Rongotai College this season for erring in the number of “new school” players they had in the 22. This was a staggering oversight given Scots is coached by a paid Rugby Director whose a member of the Wellington Schools Secondary Schools Executive and New Zealand Schools coaching staff.
It’s interesting to note the tightening of eligibility rules in the 1A Auckland competition has had a noticeable impact on the competitiveness of the results.
In 2018, 62% of all games were decided by 20 points or more. After eight rounds this year that figure had dropped to 46%.
Ironically, Saint KentigernCollege, the target of much criticism for their flagrant poaching, suffered their first 20-plus point hiding in well over a decade when they were thumped 52-19 by King’s College, another school accused of overtly aggressive recruiting practices.
I changed "six" to "eight" here:
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