All Blacks aside, the two most compelling matches I watched over the past week involved players aged between 12 and 19. On Saturday some friends and I trooped along to Eden Park to watch my old school, Auckland Grammar, be soundly thrashed by Mt Albert Grammar in the final of the Auckland Secondary Schools rugby competition.
Because of the well-documented suspensions Auckland Grammar were just steamrolled by MAGS, in part due to the suspended foursome being replaced by tiny little children, and thus the game lacked a little tension and perhaps skill level. But there are things you see in a game like this, audacious manoeuvres and raw-boned talent, which are mostly trained out of elite adult sports teams.
The crowd was fantastic, too, around 6000 crammed into the ASB stand (Eden Park is a total bombsite right now, but the skeleton of what’s coming looks exciting), with the AGS boys on one side and the MAGS supporters on the other. The contrast couldn’t have been more overt, and was oddly reflective of way the teams approached the game too.
AGS were dominated by the shirt-and-tie obligation of the Tibbs House (the boarding section of the school) contingent, who are required by some arcane school bylaw to attend every first XV game and support their troops. They sat at the front and were most quiet and emotionless, setting the tone for all who sat behind them. This despite AGS being in the game for large stretches – they scored the first try, and got back to within ten points after the opposition had threatened to run away with it.
Mount Albert’s crowd, by contrast, were young, multi-ethnic and, as befits a co-ed school, with seemingly as many girls as boys. They were loud and dressed in school colours and a large chunk had generated a full-blown Wellington Sevens atmosphere down front, replete with chants of ‘you fucked up’ whenever the hapless AGS kids dropped the ball. Far be it from me to endorse anything associated with our trumpets-n-bucket fountain-toting capital, but that particular sporting event does seem to have a pretty reasonable atmosphere, and the MAGS kids dominated the off-field competition as completely as their peers took out the on-field one.
MAGS played with a spirit, freedom and unpredictability which AGS had no answer for. Admittedly it looked from on high like the Gold Coast Titans (whose uniforms MAGS’ own closely resemble) were beating the shit out of an under 12s side, so marked was the contrast in physical size of the two teams (just look at the scale differences in the admittedly terrible photo above). But more than that, the suburban team allowed creativity room to grow and prosper on the field. The team were having fun, and trying things. Periodically they came off, at other times they turned the ball over. But they played with an elevated intensity as a result, rarely missing tackles and dominating possession for huge chunks of each half.
Auckland Grammar might be the most successful school in New Zealand rugby history, but they looked weighed down by that knowledge on Saturday. They played a very structured, traditional game, intelligent and buttoned down and got completely slaughtered. Their supporters were as conservative and subdued as their school’s play, and in the end they were embarrassed by the scoreline. For a lot of the team this was the biggest match of their career (which is why I have no problem with the disparity in sentences handed down to the Kelston and AGS players by the tribunal over the weekend), and they went down limply.
So it was nothing like a classic, but I enjoyed it more than any super rugby I saw this season. It wasn’t perfect, professional sport, but it was very high level, and refreshing in the unknowns and enthusiasm evident throughout it. In the US a game like this would be televised, with pre-match analysis, and the players involved would be famous, on some level. While that introduces some very distasteful elements into the athletes’ lives, it also produces benefits for them, their schools and the audience. I feel like high school sports should be given far more prominence than they are here, particularly rugby and cricket, where you’ll be seeing players who are clear future stars.
Instead we waste time on irrelevances like sevens (seriously, no one outside Wellington cares) and ‘grass roots rugby’ (translation: players nowhere near good enough to play professionally). If high school rugby was televised from, say, quarter finals on, and had a national tournament which took the best four teams from each island and pitted them against one another in a seeded, sudden death format, it could become our version of March Madness. You know you’d watch it.
PS – Tomorrow I’ll be writing a sequel of sorts to this, about the game of Little League I saw on ESPN last Sunday which inspired me to thinking about the topic. It was beyond sublime. If you want to know why, this guy was a key protagonist.