Poach­ing sets a bad ex­am­ple Opin­ion

Sunday Star-Times - - Sport - Mark Rea­son mark.rea­[email protected]

The Auck­land Ten’s de­ci­sion to refuse to play first 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.

It is also about New Zealand Rugby do­ing some­thing about a sit­u­a­tion that it seems 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.’’

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.

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.’’

NZR does not have di­rect ju­ris­dic­tion over school­boys rugby, although there is no doubt that it has the in­flu­ence to change the sys­tem. But does it 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.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives who said they were act­ing for the school turned up at the place of work of the mother of a promis­ing year 11 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.’’

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 six­match 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 a 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 Christ’s 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 $7500 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 Hawke’s Bay area that are of­fer­ing to cover the fees and uni­forms of 12 year olds. One school sent their first 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.

The naivety of New Zealand Rugby in tak­ing such a hands-off ap­proach is as­tound­ing.

GETTY IMAGES

All Blacks cap­tain Kieran Read left Rose­hill Col­lege to play for St Kentigerns in his fi­nal year of school.

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