Inside rugby’s schoolboy poaching saga: In-fighting, corrupted values and the quest to win at all cost

Auckland’s top schoolboy rugby competition has become synonymous with poaching talent, toxic behaviours, and vicious in-fighting. Gregor Paul reports on what’s at the heart of the schools’ desire to win at all costs.

On December 18 last year, the 12 principals of the schools qualified to play in Auckland’s 1A First XV competition in 2021, gathered for an emergency meeting.

They convened at Mount Albert Grammar School – pupils and staff had long gone for the summer – and once again discussed how they could stiffen the rules to prevent yet more incidents of egregious recruitment.

King’s College were in the dock on this occasion, having captured three new pupils, respectively from St Peter’s College, Dilworth College and De La Salle College, supposedly for the educational opportunities, but as the other principals argued, it was entirely for their rugby prowess.

These same principals had convened in almost identical circumstances two years earlier, after St Kentigern College had travelled the length and breadth of the country to recruit five pupils who had already represented another school’s First XV.

When they met in late 2018, it was to expel St Kent’s from the competition unless they agreed to be signatories to a voluntary code of conduct that enforced a mandatory six-game stand down for pupils who switched schools after being part of another’s elite rugby programme.

That code was re-written at the emergency meeting at MAGS last year to increase the stand down period to two years and so it was with a sense of weariness and dismay that once again the same group had to gather a few weeks ago after receiving a letter from a leading QC, contesting the validity of the updated code and how it couldn’t be applied to a specific pupil who had transferred from Auckland Grammar to King’s earlier in the year.

The response to King’s was emphatic: if the pupil in question played in their First XV, the other 11 schools would boycott playing them at all sport indefinitely.

This need to intervene and legislate, according to many of the 12 principals who have signed the code of conduct, is a necessary evil after seeing two decades of toxic behaviours and attitudes contaminate the purity of the competition.

The Corinthian spirit, if it ever existed in schools rugby, certainly doesn’t now and instead a win-at-all-costs culture pervades and with it a new landscape has emerged which is unrecognisable to the one most parents with teenage children encountered when they were at school.

“I think there was a period some years ago when many schools were using their First XV as a marketing tool,” says St Peter’s College principal James Bentley.

“There was a sense of some schools feeling they had to win all the time and so they tested the boundaries of the bylaws and it reached the point where new rules had to be established to curb the mass poaching and keep an even playing field.”

Poaching is the visible manifestation of this must-win culture, but a Herald investigation into First XV rugby in 2013 also found schools were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on rugby programmes and paying specialist coaches significantly more than full-time qualified teachers.

The full impact of this fixation with winning and elite competitions, showed up in statistics compiled in late 2019, which showed that total participation in rugby among teenage boys had declined by 10 per cent since 2010.

“What we’re seeing and what we’re hearing from young people is they’re not enjoying the experience so much,” said Sport NZ boss Peter Miskimmin.

“There’s a sense of too much or over-emphasis on winning – we’re not saying winning is not important, just the over-emphasis through adult expectations.”

A voluntary code of conduct – which is not legally binding – is the only formal defence mechanism in place to protect the 1A and many of the signatories are aware that it could prove to be every bit as ineffective as the Maginot Line in repelling those who are determined to cross it.

And that question of why some schools and many adults feel compelled to push children to win and chase victory at almost any cost, is one that has to keep being asked.

The biggest driver has been the arrival of professionalism, which has led many schools and parents to believe that a career in rugby is a legitimate and viable goal for some pupils to chase, despite the statistics showing less than one per cent of the population are making a living as full-time athletes.

But while it may seem impossibly misguided for schools to legitimise this pathway against such overwhelming odds, they are mostly catering for a parental community that wants that door to be held open so their children can at least have the satisfaction of leaving school knowing they maximised the opportunity.

Brian Funnell, a former pupil at St Kent’s whose three children have also been through the school, says: “From my point of view, if any of my kids wanted to go down that route [professional sports career] they were going to get access to the best possible tools and coaching to make that happen.”

He also says that he and many other parents at St Kent’s did not support or like the school’s excessive recruitment strategy in 2018 and that there was a clear disconnect between the vision of the board and the desire of those paying the fees.

The consensus view among parents is that they wanted their children to have an opportunity to be their best, something distinct entirely from being the best.

What may have pushed this lack of alignment and continues to be a major problem for schools rugby, is that it is a real and valued pathway for those harbouring ambition to coach professionally.

Several coaches currently employed full-time in provincial rugby were recruited directly from First XV. “It’s a credible pathway,” says Simon Porter, chief executive of Halo, the country’s leading sports agency.

“A lot of schools are more professional in every way than provincial teams.”

That sense of First XV being a direct link to the coaching big time, is strengthened by Super Rugby clubs having, in the last seven years, become willing to offer contracts to individuals when they are still at school.

Nigel Hurst, a long-serving teacher and respected coach at De La Salle College, believes that the move to televise many First XV games has also contributed to the win at all costs culture. He feels many schools see the cameras as an opportunity to sell themselves to a wider audience and that they ramp up the pressure on their boys to win when the game is being broadcast.

But while the professionalism of school’s rugby goes some way to explaining what has corrupted the values and ethics seen in 1A, it’s not the whole story.

There are other factors at play, most notably the pressure exerted by powerful former pupil networks.

It’s often the case at private schools, that their alumni networks are a greater source of income than the fees derived from their parents. Private schools also have a different governance structure and hence significant decision-making power can sit outside the senior teaching group, leaving principals at some major independent schools having to accommodate policies that they didn’t implement.

Specifically, some alumni networks can award and pay for scholarships and often there is a strong desire to invest in those who can potentially strengthen the First XV.

Rugby is no longer the most popular sport as measured by participation, but it remains the highest-profile game in New Zealand and the one that best connects with the Generation Xers and Baby Boomers who tend to be the biggest investors in alumni networks.

Opinion is divided as to why these groups feel so strongly about winning at rugby, but common themes that come through are reflected glory and bragging rights.

As petty it may seem, many corporate heavyweights who pump money into their alma mater do so simply so they can lord it over a colleague or business competitor who attended a rival school.

It was only a few years ago that King’s pupils taunted their Auckland Grammar rivals during one First XV match by chanting, “Your dad works for my dad”.

At the heart of this desire to win is a sense of needing to protect and promote a reputation.

Many who have been to what are considered elite schools like to trade-off that and continued success is the only means for that currency to stay valid. A title-winning rugby team creates a perception of excellence being endemic.

These networks are by no means confined to private or integrated schools as arguably Auckland Grammar has the most powerful group of alumni in the country.

MAGS is another school with a high-profile alumni which has strong interaction with the school. But as principal Pat Drumm says, the relationship between state schools and their alumni groups tends to be different to that which exists in private or integrated schools.

The latter two need a story to tell perspective parents as they need to actively find pupils. They are running businesses in a competitive environment and are obligated to market themselves.

“I am not under pressure but I do feel an obligation to make them [Old Albertians] proud,” says Drumm. “As a school that has had 100 years of rugby, I do feel that I need to keep that programme strong, but it is not the end of the world if we are not winning the competition every year.

“I am quite willing to push back against the community if they come in hard against that because it is the attitudinal things that matter.”

MAGS are one of only five schools to have won the 1A in the last 13 years and while those titles were celebrated, Drumm says that at a co-educational school with 3100 pupils it would be a gross misreading of his parental community to imagine they would support a culture where the First XV was prioritised to the detriment of other codes or where winning was pursued at any cost.

“There are 15 players playing First XV rugby on Saturday and there are 3085 other students who aren’t,” he says. “And every single one of them needs the same opportunity for success.

“If you focus on your premier sport at all costs then you are dismissing 80 per cent to 90 per cent of your young sportspeople in the school.

“And if you put a lens on premier sport that it should be results-focused, then you have actually sold out on the whole purpose of that pillar on your school.

“We have got 1900 students playing sport and rugby is a minor code in the greater scheme of things. We have got many more netballers, many more footballers. I have almost as many lacrosse players as I do rugby players. The life lessons the kids get from sport are massive.

“This is a formative level and what matters is that they learn and you embrace those opportunities for resilience building. We have got this great context that you can never artificially manufacture.”

And it’s the life lessons children can learn from playing sport that the 1A principals who wrote the code of conduct in 2018 feel they are protecting.

They argue that the point of sport, of rugby, for players that age and at that level, is to learn something about themselves – be it the value of hard work, cohesion, overcoming adversity and then apply those acquired skills in all aspects of their lives.

To use wealth, power and privilege to manipulate an outcome teaches kids nothing and for now, the 1A principals are optimistic that after a turbulent period where boundaries have been pushed, the prevailing culture in elite rugby is moving back towards fair competition where lower decile schools can effectively compete again.

“We have always worked with whatever talent has walked down our driveway,” says Hurst. “It’s just that quite a lot of our talent now ends up walking down someone else’s driveway. But I think we [1A] are turning a corner and I can see us winning another title. Not that we see that as being anywhere near as important as sending well-rounded young men out of our school gates who can make a positive contribution to society.”

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