Professional push into schools worries O'Shea

Last updated 12:55 24/07/2013
College sport
VIRGINIA WOOLF/FAIRFAX NZ
HIGH STAKES: Tom Hill is gang-tackled during the Nelson College v Ashburton College Crusaders secondary schools rugby championship Press Cup game at Nelson College.

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Nelson College headmaster Gary O'Shea has pledged to reduce the workload of the First XV by advocating to move the annual quadrangular tournament to pre-season, but he believes schoolboy rugby is becoming too much like professional sport.

The annual quad is being played midweek between the end of the Press Cup season and semifinals in the first week of August. The team will play almost five hours of game time that week outside of training.

Nelson College will host Wellington College, Christ's College and Wanganui Collegiate at quad. Along with the team, decision makers from all the colleges will attend.

On the agenda for the headmasters' meeting on the Tuesday is to set the rules for future tournaments. Wellington College and Nelson College will put forward a proposal to move quad back into to a pre-season tournament.

"We have been concerned about the positioning of quad for a couple of years and it would take it away from the congested end to the season," said O'Shea.

However, while acknowledging the positioning of quad had increased an already heavy workload for his players, O'Shea said there was "a tension" between schoolboy rugby and other levels including regional representative and ITM Cup Academies.

Nelson College First XV coach Bill Liddell quantified that with a statement that summed up a trend in New Zealand Rugby since the advent of the professional era.

"The scouts are out to find talent at First XV level. We have already got boys being scouted for contracts next year," said Liddell. "It used to be a couple of levels higher, now it has come down to our schoolboys being targeted.

"I'd love to tell them [scouts] to [go away] until the end of the season but unfortunately it just doesn't work that way. The change has to come from somewhere else, it can't come from us."

O'Shea, a former First XV coach, said last year was "very difficult" with his students training for the First XV and then at a local academy, causing them to fall asleep in class.

"The rep rugby, the Makos, if you are good enough you will make it anyway.

"To have them training for First XV, rep rugby and academy it is a nonsense, we are expecting too much of them and the talent pool is too small.

"By the time they get to 22 or 23 they will have had a guts full, they will not want to play anymore."

O'Shea said the situation had improved in Tasman, with he and Tasman Rugby Union's chief executive Andrew Flexman coming to an arrangement around academies. However, he said nationally the trend was moving the other way.

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O'Shea pinpointed schools in the North Island, particularly in Auckland, where they bring in players from overseas and professional coaches to win schoolboy rugby competitions.

"It is big money, but how much is thought of the player welfare?

"It is excessive, you are trying to bring a Super 15 mentality into a school environment.

"There is too much pressure on boys. Too many boys believe they have a future as a professional rugby player and to be honest, most of them don't."

O'Shea said there was a time, before he took over, when Nelson College "recruited two or three Samoan or Fiji boys" each year.

Now, O'Shea said the college would not "hang our hat on the success of the First XV".

"The argument is you have to do all of these things if you want to win [the] Press Cup and go to top four. Well we won't do that. I won't have a boy remain at school purely to play rugby.

"I will not allow us to, in effect, prostitute ourselves to attempt to keep up with schools that are recruiting players, using professional rugby coaches and playing and training 10 months a year. It is just not what school sport is about."

The main issue for the former schoolboy coach is that players are spending a significant part of their school life training long hours for a sport few will have as a viable career option. Worse, these years were the most important years in education.

Another related issue was that teenagers were devoting too much time to training and not enough on enjoying their carefree years, and this was crossing over into their rugby.

"You want them to be rested, to have a decent summer . . . you don't want them in a gym for three months at 17 years old and a time when they are growing.

"I think a lot of people play rugby and don't even enjoy it. I see it in their eyes, the enjoyment factor is not there.

"Whether they win on Saturday is not the paramount thing for me and it shouldn't be for the community either."

American sports have the College (University) level to blood talent, while club rugby used to be the lifeblood of New Zealand Rugby where players were picked up. While early identification and incubation in academies may be good for rugby, the question is whether it is good for the player.

O'Shea clearly doesn't think so.

- Nelson

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