Schools now pathways to top

Otago Boys High School First XV flanker Taine Te Whata on the burst against Christchurch Boys’...
Otago Boys High School First XV flanker Taine Te Whata on the burst against Christchurch Boys’ High School at Littlebourne this year. Photo: Peter McIntosh
It seems players are getting younger every year. But is the production line always going to be there? And what are we losing with the emphasis on youth? Rugby writer Steve Hepburn looks at where the game is headed.

Professional rugby brought in a whole new band of cliches to the sport.

Go-forward, work-ons, learnings. The forever popular — one game at a time.

But one of the most in-demand sayings and one which we seem to hear every day of the week is that beloved word — pathway.

Look it up. Pathway:  a particular course of action or a way of achieving something, the Collins dictionary says.

Players now have pathways seemingly when they are still wearing shorts at high school.

When they come out of high school, if they have the credentials, they get looked upon as the next big thing.

The old way of playing a few seasons of club rugby and then breaking into the Mitre 10 Cup team and then perhaps the Highlanders has fallen by the wayside. That pathway appears to have closed. The pathway now goes through secondary school rugby.

Otago Boys’ High School First XV coach Ryan Martin has been guiding the side for seven years.

He has noticed scouting and recruitment is getting more intense.

"First XV rugby is now definitely the breeding ground for provincial unions’ academies," Martin said.

He said first XV rugby on television rated higher than Mitre 10 Cup and that had magnified the focus on  school games and players.

"There are still pathways for the late developer or player who has not been identified but the percentage of that type of player is getting lower as the scouting and recruitment becomes more sophisticated at the first XV level."

Of his school side this year, four players will move into some form of contract with a provincial union.

"Most years of our leavers from the first XV it is normally four or five who are contracted compared to when I first had the team [2011] when it was rare to be contracted and we had one [Michael Collins].

"What is changing is that unions are offering more full provincial union contracts, meaning they believe the players are good enough to play Mitre 10 Cup first year out of school."

Boys’ High flanker Taine Te Whata was awarded a full provincial union contract from Southland.

Super teams are scouting at first XV level, especially the Blues and Chiefs.

The Highlanders are not as active at school level as other franchises but have young players training with them.

The likes of Josh Timu and Taylor Haugh — in the second year out of high school — were training with the team before Christmas.Highlanders chief executive Roger Clark said with five coaches on board, all the top young players in the South were known.But he said pathways — that word again — had changed over the past five years.

"What is happening now is players are considering playing overseas as a genuine option. You go through any team overseas and there is nearly always a New Zealand player in them. It might be Russia, France, Japan. I don’t know what the number is but it seems like up in the thousands," Clark said.

"That is a genuine pathway now. Say two to four years ago, then heading overseas was not an option. Now it is. Young players genuinely look at that. The pathway is not limited to New Zealand."

Clark said players such as Marty Banks and Hayden Parker could have stayed in New Zealand but  opted to head overseas.

"Players who are between 25 to 30 who have not made it, generally they are off."

If a player has made a Super Rugby side or has had a taste of training at that level and then does not make the team then most move overseas. Super Rugby is a ticket to an overseas deal.Below that, overseas gigs are harder to pick up.

Overseas clubs offer certainty of selection and a chance to revitalise the batteries.

Fullback Tony Ensor was floundering in Otago before heading to France to play for Stade Francais, where he has been reportedly been playing well.

Clark said with this band of players no longer around, the franchise was forced to pick other players.

They invariably were younger, as the middle-aged players were simply not there.

And young they are. Collectively, the eight new Highlanders for next season have played just 108 first-class games. Four of them are 21 or younger and four of them have played fewer than 10 first-class games each.

Clark said as long as the country was continuing to produce quality players, that was fine.

"We are still producing the players but who knows whether we can still produce them in five years’ time? We are not going to know that until then. That is the question."

Clark said the young players were not necessarily less talented.But what they lack is experience — miles on the clock. That can be vital in games.

Otago Rugby Football Union general manager Richard Kinley said although he had not done any research on it, Mitre 10 Cup players did appear to be getting younger.

That might be due to different styles coaches were looking to play, while squads were getting bigger.

Otago had been relatively stable in the past few years but, as players got older, they headed overseas and young players were coming into the squad.

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