Posted on August 25, 2012

It’s no secret that the bedrock of rugby in Australia is the private schools. It may not quite be a rugby-axiom, but it is still largely true that if you want to have a serious shot at Wallaby stardom, the optimum pathway is through the GPS (Great Public Schools) system, proving your credentials in the First XV rugby team.

Written by Sean Fagan
[originally published in Inside Sport]

It’s generally the case that the training facilities and coaching provided by the top GPS schools in are far superior to that of junior clubs and other schools.

In Queensland, the ARU and QRU have facilitated the move of promising teenage rugby players to GPS schools, helping players obtain “sports scholarships” along with supplemented or reduced school fees.

A prominent example is Quade Cooper. Languishing at Springwood State High, which had no rugby program, the ARU’s Michael O’Connor brought Cooper and the Anglican Church Grammar School together. A place was offered at affordable fees, and Cooper went on to become a star of the ‘Churchie’ First XV, gaining a place in the Australian Schoolboys team.

In Sydney, the GPS schools no longer offer sports scholarships – largely a result of 1993  when The Scots College ‘poached’ eight students (who just happened to be handy rugby players) from other high schools, bolstering the First XV sufficiently to win the GPS premiership.

Curiously enough, talented young footballers from various backgrounds continue to find their way to some of Sydney’s GPS schools.

Kurtley Beale had enrolled to start Year 7 at St Dominic’s College near Penrith (a rugby league hotbed), until an unexpected visitor appeared on the family’s doorstep, ultimately steering Beale to St Joseph’s to advance his football prospects. Honed by ‘Joey’s’, Beale was signed by the ARU and Waratahs at 16, but ended Year 12 with a $40,000 debt for fees.

Fueled by inter-school rivalry and the passionate support of old-boys and player’s families, a match between GPS schools can sometimes attract the biggest rugby attendances outside of the Super 14, aside perhaps from the Sydney club grand final.

Claims abound that, most recently in Brisbane, some GPS schools are ‘raiding’ other schools, even scouring amongst the Pacific Islands, for the most promising raw rugby talent that they can find – all with the intention of producing the best XV that they can, while fast becoming a pseudo ‘rugby factory’ for the professional level of the game.

Meanwhile, in the Sydney club competition, with attention focused on the plight of the Parramatta club and its inability to draw enough first graders, criticism grows against  the Sydney University rugby club as it attracts much of the available top players with, according to The Sunday Telegraph “promises of study programs and job support.”

The Courier-Mail recently reported allegations that sports scholarship fees at GPS schools were being funded by wealthy old boys and from school revenue, and that from their mid-teens footballers were completing heavy weight-lifting programs. Elsewhere, other schools had no sports scholarships or elite training development (which often comprised up to eight hours per week).

The disparity in the talent and size of players has led to accusations that a ‘rugby arms race’ Is now in full swing, with the schools that are left behind being grossly unmatched.

Some have suggested, alarmingly perhaps, that if the trend amongst the GPS schools continues we will soon be witnessing the emergence in Australian rugby of an elite junior development system amongst a select and competitive group of schools – akin to the USA where the pathway to the NFL and NBA is through colleges and their elite programs.

Whether that scenario eventuates or not, once you mix the inequality in playing talents and physical standards with a ‘win at all costs’ attitude, the football oval (and the inevitable training demanded) is invariably no longer a pleasurable place for many young schoolboys.

School principals – mindful of their responsibility to ensure the well-being of the students under their care, let alone their legal obligations – are confronted with the very real dilemma of whether to let their rugby teams take to the paddock against opponents of much superior size and skill.

Even at the best of times, selling rugby to some faint-hearted parents is a hard slog, especially with soccer and Australian football increasingly on offer at some GPS schools.

The rise of this state of affairs in schoolboy rugby is completely at odds with the founding principles of GPS schools and even rugby itself.

The design pattern for the GPS schools were the English Public Schools, particularly Rugby School. Under the ‘Muscular Christianity’ mantra, the aim was to turn out boys fully developed mentally, morally and physically – to send them out fitted in body and soul for everything the world of the 19th century could throw at them.

The game of rugby was particularly useful as an educational tool. The playing laws were a mental challenge as much as the game itself was a physical test – mere gymnastics could provide fitness, but never required a boy to think, nor to have face and confront opponents and awkward situations.

Rugby was adopted widely, praised for its proven ability to instill courage and self-discipline, in conjunction with an appreciation for the benefits that could be achieved via teamwork instead of individualism.

The game though of the mid-late 1800s was a ponderous elephant when compared to the game today – “nothing but a struggling mass of boys, and a leather ball” – much of the contest was spent in a centre-field maul that involved most of the players in a mass of humanity ambling back and forth from goal line to goal line. The few backs that there were, stood about the scrummage waiting to pounce on the ball, should it ever emerge.

Not only did the pushing and shoving the bulk of the game demanded help to physically develop each boy’s body, but little individual advantage (and damage) could be obtained by the bigger and older boys over the younger and smaller ones. One on one confrontations were exceptionally rare.

Indeed, in the popular Tom Brown’s Schooldays, (a best-selling book by Thomas Hughes about life at Rugby School), the crowning moment of the football match is when the diminutive Brown fearlessly dives onto a loose ball in his team’s in-goal, just as the giant scrimmage is about to descend upon both him and the leather. The lessons learned in a rugby match were, as Hughes put it, “worth a year of common life.”

Even in the 1920s, when the Sydney GPS schools were practically the last remaining bastion of rugby in Australia, they stood rigidly to the fundamentals of what school football’s purpose was. In a move that in hindsight can be seen as the key decision that prevented the extinction of Australian rugby, the GPS schools repeatedly rejected proposals to introduce rugby league.

The GPS headmasters argued, with sound reason, that school was not a place to be providing a pathway that ultimately (intentionally or not) led to the professional clubs, encouraging the boys to pursue of a short-lived professional sporting career – a quest that diverted young men away from aspiring and working toward a productive career that benefited himself, his family, and the community.

Sydney University held out too – when students formed a rugby league club in 1920, the University’s Sports Union steadfastly refused to recognise the movement. Not once in the club’s existence (it was in the Sydney first grade premiership until 1937) were they permitted to train or play on any of the University’s grounds.

It’s easy to say today that “it’s a different world” and the old sensibilities from past generations are meaningless – but beneath the pomp and bluff of the amateur ideal, there were sound messages.  What is the role of a school? What Is the role of school sport? Is it to help young men along the path towards a professional football career?

It was argued at the time that “there is a danger of going to excess, and a life spent wholly or chiefly in amusement is contrary to Christian teaching” and if professionalism was allowed to prosper “where that happened the life of the community, as well as of the individual, was in danger.”

When schoolboy rugby becomes too fast and too damaging for the average schoolboy, the code will have fallen from top to bottom into the hands of the professionals. Rugby famously began with William Webb Ellis in a schoolboy game – the risk is it won’t be one for much longer.

[originally published in Inside Sport]

© Copyright – Sean Fagan

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