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6 June 2022
mags v ags no 1
Riki Ruben leads MAGS onto the BG Williams Field for last month’s centenary clash with Auckland Grammar. Photo: Kate Meads.

Mt Albert Grammar School. MAGS. All Aucklanders know the name, know the initials. Rugby has formed a central plank in the school’s legacy since its birth in 1922. While the landscape has changed, with 30 sports now on offer for the 3100 students – making it the second largest secondary school in the country – and girls admitted in 2000, it remains a force in Auckland schools rugby circles. Based in the heartland of league in Auckland, it has produced some fine Kiwis, including Fred Ah Kuoi and Sonny Bill Williams.

There are 18 All Blacks to fill the hearts with pride, plus Portia Woodman, and 23 1A First XV titles, second only to Auckland Grammar, which has racked up 66 since the dawn of the competition in 1896. In the last 30 years, MAGS has also fielded some top sevens teams which have taken the spoils at the Condor Sevens. MAGS has produced some great teams down the years. From 2007-10 under the coaching of Charlie McAlister, there were three 1A titles and the 2010 national Top 4 crown.

The First XV of 2016 easily slots into that category, a superb side, led by Waimana Riedlinger-Kapa, with Caleb Clarke running rampant, often at centre, Niven Longopoa running freely from the back or wing, and marshalled by the late Geoff Moon. This side beat Auckland Grammar 50-0, an unprecedented hiding for the standard-setter. But it had to fight tooth and nail to edge Sacred Heart 15-13 in the 1A final, and beat Hastings BHS 14-13 in the Top 4 decider. In 2021, the First XV made the top four placings for the first time since 2016, though Covid-19 prevented semifinals.

The 100th season of rugby at MAGS was acknowledged. I’m ushered into the headmaster’s office. There to greet me are Pat Drumm, who has been at the helm since that red[1]letter rugby year of 2016, and director of rugby Nick Leger, a long-time teacher and rugby coach who knows what makes young men and women tick. Drumm, too, is a rugby man, qualified referee, former President of the Auckland Secondary Schools Rugby Association, and one who played on the wing for St Peter’s College First XV back in the early 1980s. He’s a mover and shaker in Auckland schools rugby circles.

It’s four days since the centrepiece centennial match, a 37-10 victory over Auckland Grammar to retain the Jubilee Trophy on MAGS’ home turf, the BG Williams Field. By all accounts, it was a helluva occasion, Albertians emerging from the woodwork to reconnect and see the old team do the damage against the ‘father school’. Both schools share the same motto and the lion on the crest. But MAGS has grown even larger than the much older boys’ only school on Mountain Road.

It was entirely appropriate, therefore, that Auckland Grammar, with whom it has shared four 1A titles, was the opponent, as it was for the 75th jubilee match in 1997, and for the naming of the field after ‘Beegee’ Williams in 2017. It’s this sort of history which has seen All Blacks squads being named at MAGS, as was the case in 2010.

‘This (2016) side beat Auckland Grammar 50-0, an unprecedented hiding for the standard-setter.’

Drumm’s grandfather Reg Harrop was a foundation MAGS student in 1922 and played in the 1924 that won the 1A title. They were quick learners, quips Drumm, the first title coming in 1923. “That amazing early story is inspirational and set in place a belonging culture at the school. Sport is a pillar, but rugby, in particular and boys’ rugby for 80 years, has generated huge buy-in and belonging,” says Drumm.

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One of MAGS’ proudest rugby achievements is that it remains, along with Sacred Heart, the only school to have never been demoted from the 1A. Even Auckland Grammar, famously, came a cropper in 1988. That shows a level of consistency over a century that is admirable when you consider First XVs change many of their personnel every year. “It’s an incredible achievement, particularly as a co-ed school, as we are now. Those combative sports in a co-ed environment are more challenging.

We talk about positive masculinity, but then we expect them to run over the white line on a Saturday and be fiercely uncompromising,” says Drumm. “There’s no real transformation at a robust boys’ school, which is why boys’ schools have historically dominated the 1A. Our First XV has maintained quality since 2000 and to win a 1A title once every four years is a pretty good cycle.”

That said, Drumm is cognisant of the need to measure success in ways other than just winning, the balance of which some schools still struggle with. ‘Beegee’ Williams was the seventh All Black out of MAGS. He played for the First XV from 1965-67, making his senior debut for Ponsonby while still a student, during the holidays. He recalls in his 1981 biography with Rugby News founding editor Bob Howitt that the First XV coach was a hard taskmaster named Eugene Cheriton, who felt the best place to make use of his skills was at first five! The captain of that 1967 First XV, incidentally, was Bernie Allen, now President of the NZ Barbarians club.

Williams was later the MAGS director of rugby and took rugby classes at school – they are still a thing for Years 9-10 in PE and a Year 11 PE class still uses rugby as a context for teaching. Naming the field after Williams is another way of ensuring the crop of present-day players can connect with the past. They never saw Beegee play, and none were at school when Caleb Clarke was carving up First XV defences, but they know who they are and can relate to those who built the MAGS rugby legacy. This year the First XV is wearing special centenary jerseys which carry the names of all All Blacks plus Portia Woodman. “They remember the past, they respect it, but they try and inspire the future.

One hundred years and never been down is a legacy. This is their watch,” says Leger. Drumm does not have fond memories of coming to MAGS to play the First XV. In 1983 he was up against Olo Brown and Mark Brooke-Cowden and MAGS beat St Peter’s 16-12 with four tries to nil. “Every time I came here for rugby or cricket we lost. I said that in my interview to come here (as headmaster),” says Drumm.

Back in 2016, Auckland Rugby introduced First XV TV. It lasted just two years, but was designed to be able to showcase quality schools rugby to wider audiences, especially abroad. SKY TV was already showing a lot of First XV. MAGS moved to limit the number of televised matches at home. It caused a stir at the time, but many now admire the stance. “It’s unnecessary,” says Drumm.

“If you drop the ball, you get on with it next time. You don’t need it to be replayed a hundred times and then on social media. Their time will come. We’re just holding off those professional imperatives.” That does not mean you will never see MAGS on TV. If the First XV makes finals or other one-off fixtures, then it will have to cop it, but Drumm says they can do without the disruption, certainly on their own fields.

Leger concurs, pointing to increasingly unrealistic parental expectations with TV exposure seen as the passport to contracts. “These kids have enough pressure on them. As soon as we get a TV game, they all get haircuts. There can be pressure on management, too,” Leger says. This is an issue and has been for more than a decade.

In the Covid-19 age, when just getting young men on the field has been a challenge, not to mention the growing mental health crisis amongst teenagers who are glued to their devices, MAGS is not immune. Of course, rugby at MAGS is not just about the First XV. Leger has to build a programme for those who want to play with their mates and have a good rugby experience, whilst mindful that grades like the Second XV, Under 16s, 15s and 14s are also important to ensure flow into the First XV, which might lose most of its front-liners at the end of the year.

How you ease them into First XV is a tricky mix. Even before the 1A landscape changed in 2020, MAGS was never about rugby scholarships for boys in Years 12 or 13. They prefer them to start in Year 9, but there is, of course, the transient nature of people in Auckland, some who may move into the MAGS zone. The boarding hostel, School House, caters for 100 boys, many from Northland, where there was an historical tie-in through farmers who sent their boys to Auckland.

A girls’ hostel has just started up. School House boys have to play a sport. Many choose rugby. The head boarder is First XV captain Riki Ruben. Only a few years ago, the Goodhue boys were there. It engenders school spirit and it’s easier for them to train together as they are already on site. In 2022, MAGS has some 10 boys’ teams, the most for some years, and two girls’ teams, plus others at Under 15s who play together at the Ponsonby club in a composite team.

The First XV girls, who play on Monday afternoons, when they can have free run of the main field, won the Auckland title in 2021, while they won the Auckland title in 10s from 2018-20. They have role models such as Woodman, but we also saw Sylvia Brunt score the first women’s Super Rugby try in New Zealand (for the Blues in 2021) while still a student at MAGS. She had her own MAGS fan club at Eden Park that night.

‘Even before the 1A landscape changed in 2020, MAGS was never about rugby scholarships for boys in Years 12 or 13.’

“All the senior teams try and support the lower grades. The Seconds might play at 9.15am, so that works out well. The boys volunteer their time and try and help out the junior teams where they can,” says Leger, whilst not overdoing the study and sport workloads. “We’re really mindful of the big picture with all these kids coming through. Our philosophy is that we want them to fall in love with the game, so we have to give them a good rugby experience. They may play First or Second XV later.”

Drumm has seen the worst aspects of First XV rugby and how it can get out of hand. “If you haven’t got a superstar team every year, so what? If your outcomes or goals are simply that, then you’ve got a massive problem,” he says. The MAGS rugby legacy is secure. There is a lot to look back on with pride, including some of the close rivalries with Auckland Grammar, Sacred Heart and King’s that have stood the test of time. The school reinvented itself in 2000 when girls joined, but it has not hindered the tradition of excellence.

MAGS has a close relationship with the Eden and Ponsonby clubs but is acutely aware that rugby is just one out of 30 sporting options available. But you just know that when 4000 turn up to see the First XV play, as transpired last month against Auckland Grammar, that it can galvanise Albertians from all over. Early signs look good for the First XV to make a strong challenge for a prized 1A semifinal berth. Beyond that, who would know? But it will fire up the old boys when the centenary celebrations are in full swing during September.

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