Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

SportsOctober 27, 2022

Schools stop playing for the cameras

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Auckland high school rugby will no longer be broadcast live as principals try to turn back the tide and stop the competition being subsumed by the professional game. But is it too little, too late?

This story first appeared on The Bounce, a Substack newsletter by Dylan Cleaver.

This feels like a huge moment, like the first droplets of water being administered by pipette onto the raging bonfire that is school sport.

The principals of the Auckland 1A schools yesterday took a bold step, one that will be unpopular with many within their rugby communities, and ended their relationship with live broadcasting and streaming. In a media release, they said:

“The 2023 Auckland 1A 1st XV Season will see a return to the core values of secondary schools rugby with a decision made by the principals to decline live broadcasts of matches. This decision has been made with a strong and necessary emphasis on the wellbeing of students at a time when secondary schools rugby players are being exposed to an unhealthy level of scrutiny…

“As well as taking the decision to make the competition broadcast-free, the principals have also agreed that matches will not be live-streamed, and that no media interviews will be given before or during the season by coaches or players. Instead, schools will continue to encourage their student bodies and wider communities to continue to attend games in person.”

It’s not enough in the wider scheme of a school sport environment that has in the space of a generation morphed from being a broad church of mateship, rivalry and camaraderie across a wide spectrum of abilities, to being increasingly and damagingly pathway driven. It’s nowhere near enough, but it’s a hell of a marker to put down.

The adults in the room have actually become the adults in the room, walking into headwinds that School Sport New Zealand, Rugby New Zealand and Sport New Zealand have failed to confront. (It is valid to note that many of the schools taking this stance were the self same who ignited the fire in the first place, and for this reason I remain somewhat sceptical about their long-term strategy in this space.)

There are multiple issues at play here, two of which can be telescoped down into two stories that appeared recently.

In a (paywalled) opinion piece in the New Zealand Herald, Bruce Holloway wrote: “Auckland’s 1A Premiership final in first XV schoolboy rugby is shaping as a classic of its type – if anyone can penetrate the cone of silence that surrounds it…

“Both schools [St Peter’s and Kelston Boys’ High] are refusing to comment about the final. An event, which anywhere else would be embraced as a celebration of the code and of young players’ endeavour and achievement, is instead being treated like dirty washing.

“It’s a big occasion sullied by big schools with small minds.”

This incensed not just St Peter’s and Kelston but many others in the secondary school rugby community. The idea that a school game should be burdened with media expectations crystalised for them that the game had tilted too far from being a competitive schoolboy fixture that engaged the relevant school and alumni community to a commercial product.

That anger was restrained but nevertheless palpable in the release, which quoted Mt Albert Grammar headmaster Pat Drumm as saying: “As educators we have become increasingly wary of organisations and individuals seeking to treat secondary schools rugby as an extension of the professional game.”

The second was this piece in Stuff, headlined: “New Zealand Rugby renews push to oversee schools rugby.” Within that story, NZ Rugby general manager community rugby Steve Lancaster said, “We are working on how we can improve the governance and administration of school rugby, in a more integrated way with the rugby system.”

This move by the Auckland schools could be seen as a subtle middle finger to NZR – a way of reemphasising their ownership of the school game while advocating for a return to boots on the ground talent ID.

(The idea that talent will slip through the cracks if it’s not televised is, in my opinion, a fallacy. It is far more likely that talent has slipped through the cracks at small, ‘uncompetitive’ schools as talent ID concentrated on the elite programmes.)

King’s vs Grammar (Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

“Many of the young men involved in this competition will aspire to playing professionally [and] those in charge of the professional game should have the necessary resources to evaluate these young men in a live setting,” the release said.

Schools have long been wary of NZR oversight, believing the overarching mission statements that guide them both are not compatible.

That hasn’t always been easy to reconcile with some of the schools’ behaviour, particularly an ugly arms race that spilled over to threats of boycotts and new regulations around recruitment, or plain old poaching in old money.

“The 1A schools have taken great strides in recent years in terms of the recruitment of student players, and we see this decision as a natural extension of our responsibility to the sport and to those who play it,” Drumm noted.

The move to broadcast 1st XV was the brainchild of the late Martin Crowe and while Sky TV latched onto the idea as a way of getting subscribers to its paywalled and now-defunct Rugby Channel, the cricketer’s intentions were noble. He believed the traditions and fierce rivalries in the school game warranted a larger stage.

(By and large, schools have no problem with Sky’s coverage, which is helmed by commentators like Ken Laban who have a genuine interest and care for the sport.)

It was a move, however, that had damaging unintended consequences. Not covered was the potential serious damage being done to student athletes who are not mature enough to deal with the attention and the potential negative blowback, particularly on largely unregulated social media forums.

“Too often we have seen the negative impacts of unnecessary hype,” says De La Salle College principal Myles Hogarty. “Many of our students already feel enormous pressure when they take the field. It is our job as principals to create safer environments for all of our students and we believe this course of action is entirely appropriate given what appears to be a greater emphasis than ever on commercialising school sport and the potential exploitation of those who choose to play it.”

First XVs became a recruitment battleground, most acutely in Auckland but also spreading beyond the Bombays and beyond rugby.

Year 14s have gone from being an anomaly to an increasing part of the school sport lexicon, with certain schools in particular finding reasons why an extra year at school would be beneficial for students who, coincidentally, nearly always happen to be good at sport (if you talk to teachers who have little or no interest in sport, they uniformly say the educational benefits of doing a Year 14 are infinitesimal).

Seeing the “success” of the broadcasting of schools rugby, the Rob Waddell-owned New Zealand Sports Collective formed a partnership with Sky – Sky Next – to broadcast or stream a vast range of secondary school sport tournaments and competitions. School Sport New Zealand was one of the signatories to the deal, which outraged the same Auckland principals.

“One has to wonder what School Sport NZ is thinking,” Auckland Grammar headmaster Tim O’Connor said at the time. “I would have hoped that the body’s primary interest was the welfare of our students, not the commoditisation of them.”

Sky Next received tacit endorsement from Sport NZ, even though several of its staff voiced serious concerns about the venture.

Then Sport NZ CEO Peter Miskimmin justified his organisation’s hands-off response by saying that the televising of school sport “was happening” and it couldn’t be stopped.

“On no basis do I know how I can stop [the broadcasting of school sport],” he said. “Schools make decisions whether to be involved or not based on their own values.”

The Auckland principals have determined what their values are and decided it could be stopped. It will annoy the hell out of a lot of people, even among their own student and parent communities.

It will also be interesting to see if this is the start of a chain reaction or whether they reassess when some talent inevitably drains towards those schools happy to remain in high-definition focus.

Will this lead to a reckoning in other sports, in other schools? Will we see a long overdue dampening down of the school sport fire, or are these principals just pissing into the wind?

Keep going!