Schoolboy rugby players hitting a ruck on a muddy field (Getty Images)

Schools portray rugby player poaching as a win-win. But do students really benefit?

This win at all costs culture isn’t new in secondary schools rugby isn’t new – schools have been recruiting talent in return for “opportunity” and “a better education” for over a decade. But do the students really benefit, or is it just the schools? 

ICYMI, St. Kentigern’s College has recently been banned from competing at the top 1st XV level next year. Why, you might ask? For their overly aggressive recruitment of top talent rugby players around the country.

Accused of “poaching” – a questionable recruitment approach where you attempt to seduce talented players from the competition to play for your school in return for a better education and a better chance of turning pro – 10 of the 11 other schools in their division decided to boycott St. Kent’s (and almost King’s College too), resulting in them effectively being kicked out of their division.

This was news to me. Not because of the “poaching”, but because this was considered news at all. Let’s not get it twisted, while what St Kent’s has done isn’t exactly kosher, they are simply the worst of a bad bunch. My experience of going to two different rugby-mad private schools painted this culture as the norm, that winning at all costs was all that mattered.

Let’s jump back in time a few years to my first year of high school. The year was 2006 and I knew nothing about rugby except that a try was worth 5 points and that sometimes dropping the ball resulted in a bunch of big dudes playing reverse tug of war. What my young self was aware of though, was that the large Tongan year 13 student in my boarding house was really good at rugby. Like, really good.

Now, my Tongan housemate was a pretty big deal at my school. As far as I was aware, he was the school’s first case on an “import” – a term the students used for a senior international student, one that was particularly talented at rugby, who would receive a free education and his best shot at playing professionally in return for his services. While this term was used endearingly, there was still a strong element of tokenism surrounding these recruited students.

Due to my inability to spot which word was spelt incorrectly in a test, I had just missed out on an academic scholarship, so the bitter side of my juvenile self really focussed on the fact that this year 13 got to go to a twenty-something thousand dollar per year school, for free. Not that I had an issue with it, it was supposedly a great opportunity for him – but as a result, I paid close attention to other student’s attitudes towards the situation; in short, they were reflective of the school’s culture; “who cares, as long as he helps us win”.

Jump forward one year, and suddenly we had three “imports” in my boarding house. A man (I say ‘man’ because I’m certain he was 19) from Fiji, a very tall senior from the UK, and our Tongan friend, who, along with being the first “import” at our school, was also the first ‘year 14’.

Additionally, we had a new addition to my year group. A transcendent talent, the second coming of Christian Cullen, but one that was actually eligible to play for the Māori All Blacks. He became a good friend of mine – and I got a bit of a wakeup call when I realised that his family could not have even remotely afforded to send him to this school without full assistance. The deal became apparent, he got to get a private school education as long as he played rugby at a high level. He was a hostage to his own talent as that was the only valuable thing the school believed he offered.

I left that school at the end of 2008, telling most people I was over the sports-made culture (not a lie, but I was also homesick). Moving onto my second school, one that was run as even more of a business, there were at least four more cases similar to my friend; young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds being offered a “better chance at life” in return from their natural rugby talent. Additionally, in my final year, I had the privilege of developing a friendship with a talented rugby player from Fiji. Once again, he was considered an “import”.

Since then, this school has become a powerhouse in New Zealand rugby, so the tactics have paid off for the school. But because of my distaste of rugby culture (despite peer pressure resulting in myself standing on the wing waiting for the ball and then running really quickly for two seasons), I tended to focus on these “recruits” as people, not players.

As a result, I made a couple of key observations that others may have missed. These students didn’t actually get the deal that was advertised. The deal being a two parter; a good education, and a shot at the big leagues. So what actually happened to these young men who were supposedly given a better chance?

My friend, Christian Cullen Junior, had his scholarship revoked and was kicked out of school for “bad behaviour” in his senior year. Digging a little deeper, I found out that he was not training as hard as he should have been and his rugby performance and fitness levels had dipped as a result. While “bad behaviour” may be grounds for an expulsion from a school as uptight as mine, the whole situation felt a lot closer to trying to get rid of a bad sports contract (except the player didn’t get paid at all). Additionally, I remember from our time at school, that his education wasn’t actually a major focus. I recall him struggling with his grades, and the teachers becoming frustrated with his low energy in the classroom. However, instead of support, he got detentions. In fact, the only support and guidance he ever received was from coaching staff during athletics and rugby – on how to be better at athletics and rugby.

Where is he now? Today Facebook tells me he has started a family and has a lovely partner and young daughter. He looks happy, which makes me happy.

Another example being my Fijian friend in my senior year. Again, and not surprisingly, his education simply wasn’t a priority for the school. I remember him being encouraged to take subjects that were entirely internally assessed, such as Phys Ed (play some badminton and do a triathlon) and Woodwork (build a big table and get 12 credits). The thing is, my friend came from a small village in Fiji – he was probably the only one out of all the students in our precious private premises who already knew how to build a table. I would say that while he made a bunch of friends, the promise of a private school education was not fulfilled.

Where is he now? He’s back in Fiji and not playing rugby at all. But, again, like my other friend he looks happy – so what’s the problem?

The problem is this: the schools are benefitting from these scholarship programmes more than the students. The issue is compounded when you consider the majority of the “recruits” we are talking about here are of Māori or Pasifika descent, and from low income households. They are being sold a dream – one that is unlikely to be realised. And if they don’t pull their weight, they’re cut from the team.

Jumping forward to present day, and we see this behaviour has only intensified. But what’s in it for the schools? The same as always; money, status, winning. These Auckland 1st XV games have thousands of spectators, and even get broadcast on Sky. The potential for commercialisation is huge, and has already begun.

Secondary school rugby has become a business. But of course it has, there’s already a blueprint for making bucketloads of money, from our mates over in the US. The NCAA is an organisation surrounded by controversy – there’s even a South Park episode on it comparing it to slavery – but everyone (except the students) get paid, so of course the exploitative nature of it is allowed to continue.

How exploitative is it? Well, using college basketball as a focus, let’s dive a bit deeper. Most of the students who receive a scholarship to a College are African American, and a lot of them are from poorer families. Professional basketball is for many, the only pathway to break the cycle of poverty that has existed since their ancestors were brought (and also bought) to the US. But to be drafted into the NBA, without playing overseas, you have to play at least one year for an American college. The colleges essentially have a monopoly on their future, and they are absolutely milking it.

College basketball is insanely popular. You may have heard of March Madness, when the playoffs are on, it’s a bigger deal to Americans than the FIFA world cup, and it’s on every year. The amount of money the NCAA and the colleges make from broadcasting rights and scholarships is incredible. The coaches of the best teams earn up to $3M USD per year. Imagine how much the schools earn. And what do the students get? A free education and their best shot at leading a better life. Sound familiar? 

And not surprisingly, the results are familiar. Most top athletes only play for the one year minimum before declaring for the NBA draft – so they don’t ever end up getting a degree. And the colleges are notorious for treating the starting athletes more favourably, and even doctoring their academic results so they remain eligible. But most of the students don’t make it.

What can we learn from this? Well, in my opinion, just like how private schools and universities have turned into businesses as a means to flourish (or survive, depending on who you ask), we’ve turned young people’s futures and the sports that they are passionate about, into a profit and success focussed model. The students are the currency, and the exchange rate is good.

But rugby is suffering, as participation rates continue to decline.

And in the case of St Kent’s banishment, while the school somewhat loses (and perhaps deservingly so) the real losers are the students both home grown and recruited, who don’t get to play and don’t get exposure to the scouts that could unlock a successful future.

But hey, at least there’s a strong track record of their education being a priority… right?


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