The boycott of the Saint Kentigern College First XV is a landmark stance in the debate about poaching, recruitment and scholarships in college sport.
Do these sporting acquisitions provide greater opportunities for students or do they become mere mercenaries in an institutions attempt to win a championship?
Dalton Papalii, from a league background in Howick, is perhaps the greatest vindication of St Kent’s rugby programme. Papalii was on a scholarship from Year 9, became First XV captain in 2015, and was recently selected for the All Blacks at the ripe age of 21. Those who witnessed Papalii play could see the benefits of St Kent’s coaching and conditioning.
By contrast Isaiah Punavi, a New Zealand Secondary Schools staring centre at Christ’s in 2017, shifted to Auckland for his final year of schooling in 2018.
Already a member of the Crusaders Academy, it’s hard to see what benefit Punavi derived from his move. St Kent’s failed to win the 1A championship and though Punavi was appointed New Zealand Secondary Schools captain, St Kent’s claiming they bolsted his already considerable talent is a tenuous claim at best.
A lot of the sensitivity in the debate appears to be around who fosters the talent. St Peter's College headmaster James Bentley told Stuff. “You get so much satisfaction from seeing a team of your boys who have grown through the school, you galvanise the community because they've known these kids growing up and then when you get to a final it means so much.”
“Schools that try to short-cut that by bringing in players who aren't familiar to the community in their last year will lose that aspect.”
In the original Hearld story breaking the boycott there are three letters published highlighting the correspondence between the 10 headmasters and St Kent’s. In one of those letters a Mrs Suzanne Winthrop is alleged to have said St Kent's needed to ‘top up’ by offering scholarships to senior students because sometimes those offered scholarships at Year 9 did not develop as expected.
Doesn’t this ‘top up’ admission reveal the program to be flawed? Why are those taken in at Year 9 not developing as anticipated? St Kent’s comes across as having little regard for players who aren’t the finished article, remembering as a private school St Kent’s can already accept whoever they like.
Mark Reason wrote in Stuff, “the Auckland Ten's decision to refuse to play 1st XV rugby against St Kentigern next season is about far more than rugby. It is about teaching kids that money can't buy your soul. It is about loyalty. It is about keeping rugby in perspective. It is about not fostering an arms race that will end up in young men injecting themselves with steroids.”
This sentiment has been echoed by the head of Sport New Zealand Peter Miskimmin and rugby players association chief Rob Nichol.
It's not just rugby though where widespread movement for sporting reasons occurs.
From National champions in 2017 to defaulting a local competition fixture less than 12 months later. What happened to the St Mary’s College senior basketball team is a cautionary tale.
The collapse in their fortunes was caused by three leading senior players and a coach moving to private school rivals Queen Margaret College (QMC).
Coach Junior Hunter and representative standard talent Grace Hunter, Te Araroa Sopoaga and Rosie Campbell all departed at the end of 2017.
The Hunters were the first to go, Grace for “academic reasons,” followed by Sopoaga and Campbell.
QMC charges $5097.90 per term compared with St Mary’s annual fee of $1,915 per year. It's hard to believe no financial assistance was being provided to the girls.
Despite their acquisition QMC failed to win the Wellington, Zone 3 and National titles which Hunter, Sopoaga and Campbell achieved at St Mary’s.
St Mary’s improved from 12th at Nationals in 2015 to 9th in 2016 and champions the next year. Staying together and building a strong team culture was far more beneficial for the girls.
St Mary’s was so depleted that on July 27 they defaulted their Sharp Cup fixture against QMC.
The Tauranga Boys’ College First XI football team have long been ripe for poaching despite being coached by a former New Zealand Secondary Schools assistant coach Neil Howard who receives no salary for coaching Tauranga.
In 1998 five players left to attend Westlake Boys’ High School. Their intention was to be located in Auckland who were hosting the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in 1999. Tony Lochhead and David Rayner who kicked onto become All Whites were apart of the exodus, but Tauranga actually beat Westlake 4-2 when the two sides played. Ironically Clinton Boyle scored a goal for Tauranga in the game concerned. His brother Shane Boyle was playing for Westlake.
In 2015 the First XI had lost the services of the following boys who had not just attended the school but had played in the First XI in previous years. Dylan Bull and Connor Probert where at Sacred Heart College, Luke Johnson was at Westlake (and St Kent’s in 2016) and Dylan Morris was also St Kent’s.
In 2014 Bull and Probert were in a Sacred Heart team that beat Tauranga 2-1 at the Nationals, Sacred Heart went onto win the tournament. This year, for the first time in five, Tauranga didn’t lose a single player and unsurprisingly achieved their best finish in five years.
Tauranga Boys’ College First XI Football National Placings 2014-2018
Carlos Price and Peni Lasaqa were Tauranga Boys’ lost to the St Kent’s First XV. The Hynds Trophy, a long standing traditional fixture between the schools is no longer contested.
It would be easy to apply a laissez-faire approach and simply allow an unregulated flow of sporting talent to go wherever they like. However sport is one of the few professions in the world where salary caps are applied in many codes to try and maintain some equality.
Sport is a genuine career path, but it’s a short term one that comes attached with considerable risk. Only two players from the National championship winning Hamilton Boys’ High School First XV in 2013 are playing regular first class rugby. Paul Cully stressed on Stuff the debate shouldn’t be about “winning, but the outcome for boys.” Cully poses the questions
“Are (boys) being best served by being put through almost professional-level programs at a young age, only to realise later in life that they peaked at 17?”
Guardians of sport have an obligation to make sure their games are competitive and enjoyable for its participants. Tellingly in 1A this season 42 games were decided by 20 points or more compared with 22 five years ago. Could it be the growing inequality between the top and the bottom teams is a reason for the widening margins?
Despite their extensive recruitment King’s College haven’t won a single grade out of a possible 38 finals in the past two years. Why the clamour to go to King’s?
It’s not simple issue, but it's bigger than me, myself and I.
A coalition of schools have agreed in principle to boycott playing Saint Kentigern College First XV in the 1A competition next season. Ten schools have issued a letter to St Kent’s refusing to play them on the grounds of a recruitment policy being deemed morally and ethically reprehensible. Such a stand is extraordinary and has generated considerable attention and debate.
Why has such a stand taken so long?
St Kent’s have been actively recruiting since at least 2010 when they went from fifth in Auckland to National Top Four Champions two years later.
What incentive exists for local fee paying students to rugby at St Kent’s?
Conversely, what happens to the scholarships of the “five senior elite players from rival 1st XVs” if St Kent’s have no competition next season? At this stage these boys have been led up the garden path.
St Kent’s and King’s have had the same rugby director involved with their First XV’s. Is this individual the person causing concern rather than the entire First XV program? Has this person done anything wrong under College Sport Auckland rules?
Tasesa Lavea has coached both the St Kent’s and King’s 1st XV’s. His twin brother Tai coached St Kent’s. Both coaches are open about the benefits of distributing scholarships and haven’t broken any specific rules though Tai was forced to stand down in 2010 after a season earlier being found guilty of luring a player away from Aorere College.
If 10 schools refuse to play St Kent’s don’t St Kent’s automatically win the 1A competition?
Five points is gained for a default and unless King’s (the only school at this stage willing to play St Kent’s) makes the final and beats St Kent’s, St Kent’s would automatically qualify for the Blues regional finals series. The ten other schools would have to lobby to have the blues zone finals restructured. St Kent’s would have to conform to the rules of the National competition. How would their prospects be affected by this?
Who will St Kent’s play next year if ten teams from 1A refuse fixtures?
Could St Kent’s play Colts rugby in the Auckland club competition? The Presbyterian Quad is an annual schools event. Will this continue? The World Schools Championship is set to be played in South Africa again. Could St Kent’s consider Australia for a series of games or would they just tour New Zealand, doing what Gisborne Boys’ have done for years and hit the road. Gisborne is of course in the Super 8 who supports the stance of the 10 boycotting Auckland schools. If outside sanctioned school competition, St Kent’s would be entitled to distribute as many scholarships as they like. With careful planning and sponsorship could they become similar to an international youth academy in time.
Is the National Top Four a problem?
Going to the “right school” has become increasingly important in reaching the elite level of New Zealand rugby. This fact was best illustrated in the naming of the New Zealand secondary schools development squad when 21 players were selected from six private schools. Similarly there are perhaps only a dozen schools nationwide that consistently enjoy a genuine shot of winning the National Top Four title. Does the Top Four need to be done away with to subdue some of the championship fervor within schools? Strengthening representative competitions, could help keep more players within their communities. What about a National U18 competition based on the U19 model?
Will schools similarly aggrieved by widespread recruiting in other competitions follow suit?
Scots College, Wellington had eight boys on scholarship in their National Top Four winning starting XV in 2014. St Andrew’s College, Christchurch and Otago Boys’ High School are just two other schools who have attracted criticism for their “recruiting.”
What does all of this say about the governance of Secondary School Rugby?
Schoolboy rugby is essentially governed by schools themselves who are elected board members to local College Sport organisations and the New Zealand Secondary Schools Sports Council (NZSSSC). Schools pay a fee which goes into a collective pool to support operations, additionally trust funding is provided.
The New Zealand Secondary Schools Rugby Council (NZSSRC) is supported by NZSSSC and New Zealand Rugby (NZR), but is largely independent of NZR. The NZSSRC runs the National Top Four. If NZSSRC sided with the ten schools boycotting St Kent’s and refused to allow St Kent’s entry to the National Top Four qualifying tourney St Kent’s could launch a human rights case on the basis exclusion. However in 2015, Rotorua Boys’ High School won the National First XV championship, but were demoted to last in Super 8 because the rules regarding player eligibility were different in each competition.
Could a centralized authority with robust selection criteria be better placed to govern schoolboy rugby. Shouldn’t rules on player eligibility, competition structure and the like be consistent across the country to ensure clarity and fairness?
The head of St Kentigern College David Hodge claims he has a letter from a senior NZ Rugby staffer endorsing St Kent’s rugby program. If so does this have potential to colour any outcomes of their ongoing review into secondary schools rugby?
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