Mark Reason: Schools poaching epidemic teaches All Blacks to follow the money

BreakfastAfter Saint Kentigern’s recruiting tactics came under the spotlight, the Breakfast team couldn’t help but wonder who it benefits.

It is also about New Zealand Rugby doing something about a situation that they seem to have been complicit in. Far from discouraging St Kent’s ruthless poaching of top rugby players from other schools, NZR seems to have endorsed it.

David Hodge, the headmaster of St Kents has been waving around a letter he says came from the NZR. He quotes NZR as saying; ‘I would like to acknowledge the contribution made by St Kentigern College in providing opportunities to young men that not only develops them as rugby players but also affords them numerous other personal development benefits. Not only does it foster their ambitions in our game, but it also affords them future prospects beyond the game.”

Players like Charles Piutau chasing overseas money over the All Blacks is the end result of a system that encourages such behaviour.
GETTY IMAGESPlayers like Charles Piutau chasing overseas money over the All Blacks is the end result of a system that encourages such behaviour.

In one sense that is completely true. St Kents recruitment policy teaches these young men that loyalty is a seven-letter word not worth your breath. Why would Charles Piutau, formerly of Wesley College, and Steven Luatua, formerly of Mount Albert Grammar, not abandon the All Blacks for greater riches when they have played in a schools system that actually encourages such behaviour.

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Brendon Ratcliffe, the coach of Napier Boys High, says; “The naivety of New Zealand Rugby in taking such a hands-off approach is astounding. They whinge and cry and moan about Japanese and French clubs poaching our players. But they let this culture bed in and they turn a blind eye.

“They let this wave of 16 and 17-year-old boys grow up thinking first and foremost, ‘What’s in it for me?’ The NZR is tacitly endorsing a mercenary mindset. Where is the integrity? There is no country more compromised than us.”

The NZR do not have direct jurisdiction over schoolboy rugby, although there is no doubt that they have the influence to change the system. But do they want to change it. Kieran Read, the captain of the All Blacks, is a product of it. Read left Rosehill College to play a season at St Kents. His departure would have weakened Rosehill’s student male leadership, another harmful byproduct of all the poaching that goes on.

The principal of St Kents says that his school does not actively recruit and that parents are battering down their door. Well, it seems a very portable door. The other day the St Kents door turned up in Wairoa.

Kieran Read left Rosehill College to play his final season at school at St Kentigern College.
GETTY IMAGESKieran Read left Rosehill College to play his final season at school at St Kentigern College.

Representatives who said they were acting for the school turned up at the place of work of the mother of a promising year eleven player. The father then arrived and wondered where they had seen his boy play. They said that they hadn’t seen him play, but he was on the Top 60 list (an American style compilation that rates New Zealand schoolboy talent). They offered the boy full fees and to fly the parents to Auckland for home games.

It’s not just St Kents who are poaching. A coach was admiring the play of the King’s College lock at a pre-season tournament. The response was brazen; “We saw him on Youtube playing for Tauranga Boys’ so we went and got him.”

At a sevens tournament the Scots College coach was bemoaning the loss of their Fijian Schools Under-18 lock. “We had him and then Hamilton Boys have got him.”

Brendon Ratcliffe says the NZR is tacitly endorsing a mercenary mindset among players.
STUFFBrendon Ratcliffe says the NZR is tacitly endorsing a mercenary mindset among players.

Ratcliffe calls the situation an epidemic, although he would be very irritated if anyone thought he was whinging because Napier Boys High have lost their halfback to poaching. He’s replaceable because Napier develop their own talent.

One solution is to impose a nationwide six-match stand-down on any boy who changes school in his final two years unless his parents have moved geographically for work purposes or the boy has been expelled from another school. However some coaches fear this would encourage even more poaching of the Pacific Islands. Rugby scholarships could be banned, but one coach said the school would just create rowing scholarships instead, regardless of whether the rugby recruit had ever sat in a boat.

When it becomes an arms race to the top, to the lure of professional contract and then maybe the All Blacks, humans will go to many lengths. At Craven Week in South Africa this year, 122 drugs test were conducted, and six schoolboys tested positive.

Khalid Galant, the CEO of the South African Institute for Drug-Free Sport, said, “Each one of the boys tested positive for a cocktail of steroids.The drugs that these boys tested positive for is mostly injected through a needle. We’re not seeing a downtrend or plateauing of this kind of behaviour. We’re actually seeing a greater tolerance for doping behaviour in schoolboy rugby.”

Don’t be naive enough to think that his couldn’t and isn’t happening in New Zealand. We are made of the same human material, the same human ambition that drives schools to induce boys back to spend a further year in school in order to bolster the first team.

Schools like Hastings Boys, Mount Albert and Rotorua have ‘prospered’ through such behaviour in recent years. It is also rife in the South Island. Steven Dods, assistant Sports Director at Christs College, has seen Christchurch Boys High and Otago Boys High improve their teams by having boys stay on in year 14, and many schools encourage it.

Dods says, “It’s costing the taxpayer seven-and-a-half thousand dollars a student. They’re not attending many classes. That’s wrong.”

Ratcliffe suggests appointing an independent auditor who is responsible for approving all year 14 students. Some do it in good faith, trying to work towards level three grades that they had not achieved the year before. But others are just there to play rugby and Dods calls it “a rort”.

Such is the escalation of the rugby arms race that Ratcliffe says that there are schools in the Hawkes Bay area that are offering to cover the fees and uniforms of 12-year-olds. One school sent their 1st XV with clipboards to a junior rugby competition in order to scout players. It is insane and some of this dark behaviour is starting to leak into other sports like hockey.

Malcolm Forbes said that the purpose of education is to replace an empty mind with an open one. In New Zealand the purpose of education can seem to be replacing an empty mind with a selfish one. So although not all the schools who are going to boycott St Kents have had clean hands themselves, at least they have seen the light.

Good on them for taking a stand. They deserve our support.

Sunday Star Times