Campbell Burnes knows all about the debates that swirl around schools rugby, so he sat down with NZR’s point man to check the teen game’s pulse.
If you read some of the headlines surrounding schools rugby in this country, you would think the entire model is broken beyond repair.
There is no doubt that the vexed issue of ‘poaching’ is an easy one to highlight, but First XV rugby is only a small part of the landscape. Schools rugby as a whole needs some TLC and this was highlighted in the comprehensive independent review carried out by former principals, and rugby men, Mike Leach and Peter Gall in 2018, the findings of which were made public in early 2019. In it were 31 recommendations.
This is where Callum McNair comes in. He is New Zealand Rugby’s secondary schools rugby manager, and assumed the role 2019, a position highlighted in the review.
McNair knows the scene, having worked for the North Harbour union and at Takapuna Grammar School as director of sport. Long-term he wants to be out of a job. Sounds kinda strange, but here’s why: “Long-term, my role wouldn’t exist because the school system is really clear and structures enable all those opportunities, provide equity for Maori and Pasifika, and keep 12-15 year-old boys engaged and playing rugby they way they want to play it,” he says.
The secondary schools rugby population in this country is around 30,000, about 20 percent of the total registered numbers. Around 360 out of upwards of 450 schools play rugby. There are 12,000 volunteers. Rugby is in the top three school sports of highest rates of participation, but it is not taking that status for granted, not when there are about 50 sports teens can play now.
That’s why McNair works in closely at the NZR with Mike Hester, head of participation development, and Steve Lancaster, the GM of community rugby.
“The model isn’t broken. It creaks sometimes and no question we’ve got work to do but it’s far from what is sometimes portrayed in the media,” says McNair.
The priority for 2020 was just to get footy back on the field, so little could be done to implement the NZR strategy then. But a plan is now in place which is honing in on leadership/governance, developing a framework to ensure all teenagers’ rugby needs are met, building the ‘team behind the team,’ which is recruiting teachers and coaches, developing pathways and aspirations for all levels, and championing rugby and sport’s values.
Governance is a big one. The nationwide schools rugby system is slightly confusing and fragmented. Who runs schools rugby, for example, in Auckland? Is it the Auckland union, College Sport or ASSHA (the principals)? The short but not definitive answer is they all have some say and skin in the game.
But McNair and the NZR are not going to go in all guns blazing and tell schools that were established in the 19th century how they should run their rugby programmes. He gets in front of principals, who are all educators and work absurdly long hours, often harangued by parents with crazy expectations of what the school should be offering their boy in rugby. Many principals are good people, but most have sizeable egos and are not plagued by self-doubt. That said, McNair reckons he has not yet met a principal he doesn’t like.
He is providing a framework for governance whilst acknowledging the vagaries of the local scenes. Schools rugby in Southland is vastly different to schools rugby in Auckland. You cannot institute a one size fits all policy.
“It’s not our role to go and tell provincial unions, either, how to run their teenage rugby. We do want to provide guidance as to what best practice looks like and where we can get alignment. But those in the Hawke’s Bay union, say, will know the Hawke’s Bay schools rugby scene better than I or the NZR know it.”
He has to look at all areas of the schools game, but not so much First XV, though that garners all the attention.
“First XV is very well supported and the programmes are generally really good. The competitions are exciting and the vast majority of schools do a bloody good job by their kids. Our opportunity is to look at everything else. Retention and engagement would be two key words and that’s typically not your First XV players,” says McNair.
Girls are getting into the game in their teens, too, but how do you teach the new ones the game when it is very different to coaching rugby-savvy boys? Do they play sevens, 10s or 15s?
In smaller unions, with few schools, clubs provide rugby for teens. Not so in the bigger centres. But there is a weight grade for your size, something never highlighted when some over-wrought mother panics about little Johnny getting squashed by physically mature PI boys.
The IR grade (for premier schools Under 85 rugby) is played in a handful of unions and is a growth area, much like that grade is at club level.
“We might look to develop a regional 1R tournament, where schools who traditionally meet in First XV can play in this restricted weight category,” says McNair.
The RAIS (rugby administrators in schools) funding model has changed. Covid-19 put the kybosh on funding, which was at around $1million per annum to provide schools in need with a rugby teacher/administrator. Better resourced schools have directors of rugby but often the workload will fall on a PE teacher or the like. McNair says there is no lack of willingness to invest from NZR.
“Teachers, because of their workloads, are getting less and less engaged with sporting codes. Rugby is not immune to that,” says McNair, the big question being ‘How do you free up time?’
McNair always returns to the review to anchor what he does, with the drive to make the game safe, enjoyable and attractive for teens. The half-game rule is still in place for all grades below First XV, as is the blue card scheme for possible concussion cases, both worthy initiatives. There is no extra time and games are still 35-minute halves.
North Harbour, Counties Manukau, Wellington and Wairarapa-Bush are all trialling law variations in schools this season. All tackles must be below the lower point of the sternum, jackalling must be done with a split, rather than level, stance and any player contesting a high ball must remain grounded.
The Tasman union is piloting the first student youth rugby council, which will give a voice to the ones that are in the thick of the action every weekend.
“We want them to tell us what they are seeing. It will be a mix of seniors, girls and boys,” says McNair. The answers from that will guide participation and transition to club rugby strategies in that key school leaver bracket.
Garry Chronican and his team at the NZSS union will continue to run the pinnacle events, such as the Top 4 tournament and the NZ Schools and NZ Barbarians Schools programmes, but NZR will be in behind with support and, with the PUs, helping drive participation at the non-elite levels.
McNair is getting around the country talking to stakeholders, those at the coalface of the schools game, watching plenty of schools code at all levels and getting in front of those all-important principals.
Rome was not built in a day, but he is chipping away at implementing NZR’s strategy. It will be fascinating to see the outcomes in the next two to three years.