New Zealand Rugby Players Association chief executive Rob Nichol, in an interview with Stuff, has delivered a chilling warning that the game in New Zealand’s schools faces much more serious problems than just the over-the-top recruitment policies of some institutions at the pointy end of first XV rugby.
Much bigger, warns Nichol who says the focus on the first XVs at many schools at the expense of the rest of their rugby programmes has got out of hand and threatens the very fabric of the sport in this country.
Nichol backs the action of the 11 1A Auckland rugby schools who have effectively threatened to boycott all games involving St Kentigern College unless the independent fee-paying school comes into line with agreed principles around recruitment of players to its first XV.
But the Kiwi professional players’ boss warns that commentary on the issue needs to take into account the welfare of the young players caught up in the debate and that a broader understanding is required of what the real “crisis” at this level involves.
“It’s got to be sorted out and we support it being sorted out,” Nichol said. “It’s unfortunate it’s resulted in the isolation of one school, but let’s be honest: the reason they got round the table in the first place is because they’re all concerned about their practices in this area, not just St Kentigern.
“Good on them for finally trying to address it and this controversy has at least brought some attention to it. I am confident they will get it sorted … [but] people need to realise this wasn’t just a St Kents issue, this is an issue they identified across the lot of them.”
However, Nichol says the debate will be worthwhile if it draws attention to what the real problem in schools rugby is.
“This issue being debated is not the crisis. This has to be about the kids. You’ve got kids who have moved up to a school and they’re feeling under pressure and probably been put in a compromised and difficult situation.
“Then you’ve got to start thinking of kids in the second XV or aspiring to be part of the first XV and kids have been brought in for year 12 or 13, and they’ve been at that school, worked hard to give themselves a shot and suddenly someone’s brought in over the top of them.
“What message is that sending? ‘We don’t think you’re up to it, so we’re going to bring someone in to help us win’.
“That’s the real crisis. If these kids are thinking the first XV is unattainable for me, I’m not getting the coaching I feel I deserve, I’m not going to play, and we continue to get this decline in registered numbers at that level, it’s going to cripple the game in 15 years’ time.”
The shame, adds Nichol, is that talented youngsters are already being lost simply because their physical maturity is not at the same level as others at their age.
“They’re thinking ‘if I can’t make the first XV, why bother playing because there’s a massive disproportionate allocation of coaching, resource and focus on the first XV … We know for a fact kids want quality coaching, yet they’re often not getting it because so much energy and resource goes into the first XV.
“That’s the crisis. We’ve got a massive dropoff in secondary school player numbers in males and we’re not going to capture the females we want unless we can sort that situation out. The schools need to provide quality coaching across all kids.”
Nichol emphasises it’s not just players being lost, but future coaches, parents of players, community leaders and corporate influencers who have all benefited from the values instilled by rugby.
“That’s what’s at risk. Too many schools are too focused on a win-at-all-costs first XV model, as opposed to thinking about the role rugby has in developing men and women with fantastic values.”
Nichol said the NZRPA has tried to be proactive with schools around these issues but fear their messages are falling on deaf ears.
“Rugby, like all sport in schools, should be about character development of young people and something that supplements a high-quality educational environment.
“It’s got out of hand and people who should know better have lost their way when it comes to the role sport is playing within schools. Others are absolutely nailing it.
“Somewhere along the line this discussion going on now needs to evolve and look at a much more holistic picture of actually what is the role of sport in our schools and have we got it right?
“At the moment, based on what we see, rugby is really struggling in this respect.”
Sunday Star Times