Schoolboy Rugby: A Modest Proposal - Green and Gold Rugby

Schoolboy Rugby: A Modest Proposal

Schoolboy Rugby: A Modest Proposal

First, a little history…

Cooerwull Academy

The Athletic Association of the Great Public Schools formed in 1892. Its members, by April 1892, included King’s, St Ignatius, St Joseph’s, All Saints Bathurst, Shore, Sydney Grammar, Newington, St Stanislaus, St Patrick’s Goulburn and the finest school in all of Lithgow, Cooerwull Academy. Scots joined in 1893, the Armidale School in 1897, and Sydney High in 1906.

Over time, the country schools dropped out (except for TAS) — Cooerwull shut down altogether because, legend has it, all of its staff enlisted to serve in the First World War. By the end of the First World War, however, Sydney had a bunch of relatively successful private schools unconnected with either the AAGPS or the Catholic system. These schools repeatedly applied for membership of the AAGPS, entirely without success. So in 1929 Knox, Barker, Trinity and St Aloysius formed the Associated Schools. Cranbrook was allowed in in 1930 and Waverley (after being rebuffed for some years) in 1944.

Sydney then had two private schools’ associations in which the major winter sport was rugby. Over time, schools began to apply to join the Associated Schools. There was a short period (1978-80) in which St Patrick’s Strathfield and St Pius were allowed to compete in the Associated Schools Rugby rounds on a trial basis, but they were denied full membership of the Association. And so history repeated itself, and the schools who were denied entry into the existing associations formed their own — the Independent Schools Association.That gave us three schools’ associations, which is more or less where we are today.

The point is, no one planned this. And the schools rugby competitions we play and watch today are conducted on the basis of decisions made in 1892 and 1929. Trouble is, nothing else has stood still in that time. Some schools in these Associations field players who are doing Pathways with the intention of grooming themselves for a career in professional rugby. They still find opponents who are grooming themselves for a career in law or medicine who enjoy playing a bit of rugby on the side.

One of these boys will spend three hours a day in the gym, and glance occasionally at a book. The other will reverse that ratio. One boy will smash the other out of sight in the HSC, but the favour will be returned on the rugby field. Hence, Sydney High has removed its 1st XV from the GPS competition and Grammar (0-197 in its last two games) must be heading in the same direction. Incidentally, many Grammar old boys become lawyers and doctors, and it must be only a matter of time before there’s a serious injury in one of these mismatches that keeps both professions busy.

The discrepancies are a little less pronounced in the Associated Schools competition, but the academically selective St Aloysius has never won the Plume Shield competition, and Cranbrook has won it only once since its resumption in 1989.

When rugby went professional at the senior level, there was an immediate impact on the junior level too. That increased intensity in preparation made it impossible for the casual rugby players to compete on anything approaching an even footing with the serious ones. I’m not criticising any school here, just observing that rugby has a different place in the priorities of different schools whom history has bundled together.

Add to this the obvious fact that there are schools outside the GPS competition and the Associated Schools competition that would compete strongly there. St Augustines and Oakhill are obvious examples. It seems mildly absurd that they are confined to school rugby’s ‘third tier’ while Grammar, due to an accident of history, leaks points at a rate of nearly two a minute.

The Proposal

Strange things can happen….

Now, the modest proposal I’m about to suggest will not happen in my lifetime. Our private schools are too fond of their traditions. But suppose you were asked to design a schools rugby competition from scratch, given the state of the schools as they stand now, not based on how they looked in 1892. Surely you’d try to group the schools into pools in which they’d be evenly matched. You’d do this for three reasons: to create meaningful competitions, to allow the best teams to test themselves against each other on a consistent basis, and to allow the more casual players to enjoy competing against players on their own level.

And you might come up with something that resembles the conference system in American College Football. You might base those colleges partly on geography, but also on the standards of play and on the number of teams each school wants to field and the level of its aspiration. You could have a rung like the SEC, where (say) St Joseph’s and Barker and St Augustine’s could test themselves and a level like the Ivy League in which the academically selective schools could preserve their traditions of scholar-athletes without anyone getting hurt.

Schools whose focus changes from time to time could apply to move from one conference to another, and there would be an independent commission to decide who played where if no agreement could be reached. There would need to be a mechanism to ensure that outstanding individuals from less competitive conferences had an opportunity to advance to representative games, but that wouldn’t be impossible to achieve. And if membership of conferences changes from time to time, then it’s no bad thing, but proof that the system is doing its job.

As I say, don’t expect it to happen in my lifetime. But it should. I enjoy and respect tradition, but you need to adapt when the times change. And if you disagree with that, good luck enrolling your sons in Cooerwull Academy.


Photo credit to Andrew Smith

  • Kiap

    Spot on. But it makes too much sense!

  • Big Ted

    Completely agree that it would be a great idea, and consistently produce higher quality competitions and hence players. But unfortunately as you so rightly stated, the pompous attitude and reluctance to stray from tradition will ensure that something that may benefit rugby ( and assist with the plight of our national side) will unfortunately never happen.

    Thanks for the insight into the history of the competitions though.

  • David

    Strongly disagree with the proposal. I’m a Joeys boy, so there’s probably a bit of bias here, but I’d say the GPS schools are happy the way we are, there’s a lot of friendship and rivalry between the schools, not just based on the rugby field. Whilst its disappointing that High and Grammar’s rugby has slipped so far since they went selective, we still enjoy having them in the competition as part of the community. Schools like Augustine’s and Oakhill are good rugby schools, but they’re not part of the friendship the GPS has built up over 100 years. And I don’t much agree with the idea that its not fair to have academically minded students run out against players who aspire to be professional. I know for example that when Joeys played Grammar on the weekend they were careful not to apply much pressure in the scrums to avoid injury. Give players an opportunity to come up against the best opposition they can, don’t restrict them just because they’re likely to get beat up a bit.

  • PJ

    Talk about the seriousness of schoolboy rugby – Word is Knox have just sacked 15 year 1stXV coach Chuck Ardron and replaced him with former Waratahs coach Matt Williams on a $150,000 a year contract!

  • stinger

    Great idea. I am unfamialiar with Sydney schoolboy rugby but the same thing is occurring in Brisbane where I have been involved in coaching a 1stXV side in the (tier 2) AIC comp. GPS rugby is a joke because it has become too professional to the point where players and coaches are recruited as if it were super rugby while some schools maintain the ‘whatever comes through the gate’ philosophy. A big problem is that to become a member of said “institutions” you have to play ALL the sports throughout the year. What would be great is if the respective rugby unions (NSWRU, QRU, etc) took over the running of schoolboy rugby. They could make divisions, promotion relegation & have (heaven forbid) state schools playing in comps with private schools (MY GOD!!!).

    Unfortunately, as you said in your article Snort – not in our lifetime and not while the old school ties run rugby.

  • robo cop

    I agree with stinger. ARU need to set up a proper development route for kids to follow. NRL- arrive alive grew into Toyota cup and the rest is explainable.. Rugby – schools?? Only Private schools has exposure, public school players have little chance. Club?? If you don’t play for Sydney university, you have no chance. Yes, you got other clubs but please some clubs in suburban cup will give some shute shield teams a run. Drew Mitchel, Chanel, Giteau,Ryan cross rather play suburban comp!! Embarrassing for ARU..
    Grow some hair ARU and spend the time and money for the future cause what you doing now is only benefiting your pockets and not the schools and grass roots.

  • You can’t buy spirit

    The idea is great. A the very least it exposes the stupidity of having competing competitions.

    As an ex Sydney High 1st XVer (thankfully before it all went down hill and we still won games) this makes so much sense. Nothing depresses me more than knowing SH has thrown in the towel. That happened after a Kings XV where even the halfback was bigger than our locks smashed them off the park and caused a lot of injuries.

    At the very least there should be a way that schools like High and Grammer can still have saturday first matches without competeing against the bigger schools whose teams are usually packed with boys on ‘scholarship’ doing ‘pathways’ (year 12 over 2 years so they are actually 19). High is still angry that we lost the premiership to scots in the early 90s to a team where the only player who started in year 7 was Tom Bowen.

    Don’t get me wrong. I think the real solution is for High and Grammar to reverse their reduced focus on sport and introduce compulsory saturday sport like the other schools (how we managed to compete when we only went down to the B’s and Joeys goes still manages to feild a K team is beyond me). Yes about 120 guys in my year went 90+, but a lot of us did that while still playing saturdays and training 4 days a week.

    My idea:
    As it stands Rugby is played in Terms 2 and 3. Term 2 is more for training and a few warmup matches. term 3 is the comp. Could we not just have GPS/CAS/ISA run their comps in Term 2 and then the top 2 teams from each play an A-Tier comp in term 3 while the middle teams play a 2nd tier and the bottom teams play a 3rd?

    That might keep the pride intact and increase the spectatcle as it would still be GPS vs CAS vs ISA.

  • Patrick

    Great idea!

    I also think that an ideal ‘third tier’ would include some kind of U18 ‘fourth tier’ as a tag-along.

    Both schools and junior club are far too patchy in pretty much every State, and we need a way for talented juniors to get a more regular exposure to talented coaches and experienced professionals (and contested scrums!) without having to be David Pocock/JO’C and play S15 as 17-year-olds.

    Even if they only played 6 matches a year it would already be that much more than now.

  • Paul rigby

    Spot on. It is negligent to allow grammar to risk their boys against these 100kg young men, many of whom are on rugby scholarships. Will it take a tragedy for someone to wake up. One of the commentators talks about friendships built over 100 years. Gee the smithsonian would be interested in that. In any event the proposal is not to disband the associations. Only to have them compete against schools in rugby only of similar ability. If you added a grand final to each of the conferences what a wonderful experience for the students.

  • usdh

    I know that this suggestion seems logical, but it wouldn’t work out. The quality of school’s First XV is always changing and it would be impossible to know how they are going to perform in the following year. For example, this year in the GPS, Joeys is struggling in the bottom half of the table, and the top three sides are Newington, Scots and Shore, who have all struggled in previous years. Another exmple is the difference in Shore sides in 2006, when they were joint winners of the Premiership, to where they were in 2010 and 2011, right down the bottom. It is impossible to grade them into pools until they produce similar level sides each year continually, or the Sydney Schoolboys Rugby devises a solution for this

  • Fred Clark

    Snort’s modest proposal is so sensible, and so obvious that it barely merits a response – other than to say, thank you Snort.

    What I noticed in high schools in the USA, where I was a teacher, is that the high school coaches reconcile educational principles and responsibilities with the ambitions of the teenage athlete.

    How do they achieve this? The high school sports coach is a significant mentor on the pathway of life – and in practice, this means getting a university scholarship for the young man or woman. The coach is instrumental in saving the parents tens of thousands of dollars in tuition fees – by using his contacts and influence with university coaches that control scholarships, and lead the athlete onward to professional careers.

    We don’t have this system in Australia – and largely, I’m glad we don’t. But there is nothing wrong with the professional pathways for aspiring rugby players.

    The private schools have clearly not adapted to a changing world, and pressure needs to be brought to bear through old boys’ associations and other lobbying avenues. Thanks, Snort for your contribution to the debate.

  • Hugh Jarse

    The Australian Schools Rugby Union has announced that a discussion forum will be held at the University of Queensland on 23rd October.

    This initiative comes at the suggestion and request of a number of schools. The purpose of the Forum is to discuss, consult and plan for aspects of schools rugby in Australia. Hence, all schools playing rugby are invited to attend.

    Representatives of Senior Rugby bodies and Convenors of Schools Sporting Groups or Associations are also invited.

    One of the drivers of this day is the increasingly disparate rugby seasons that occur amongst school groups and between states – producing a need for more and earlier planning and consultation.

    The purpose of the day is to provide information and have discussions on:
    The aims and purposes of rugby at schools and representative levels planning and dates for local, regional, state and national schools rugby events over the next two or three years.
    The interaction with, and support from, state and national senior rugby bodies.
    Safety issues and relevant laws and coaching.
    The growth of Sevens rugby as it becomes an Olympic sport.
    Other matters as may be suggested by schools
    The day will be a facilitated one – to help ensure that there is consultation and discussion as widely and effectively as might be possible. To assist with planning Schools are asked to respond as below, indicating the attendance, or otherwise of representatives from your school.

    Tuesday 23rd October
    9.30 a.m. to 4.00 p.m.
    St Leo’s College, College Rd, University of Queensland, St Lucia, Brisbane
    Morning/afternoon tea and lunch provided
    Participants would be responsible for their own travel costs.



    ****STILL TIME TO BOOK ****

    Bookings so far include all school sectors
    — State, Catholic and Independent
    — as well as Representatives from the Senior Rugby bodies

  • Maybe

    but wouldn’t this segregation of schools further separate the focus of each school? There are star players around any of the school competitions who might be in losing teams and wouldn’t this make it harder for those players to do better in the future? though it is a good idea considering how badly some teams cannot compete against other schools.

  • Robert

    A very senbsbile proposal, as are the associated comments and the Ocotber 2012 initiative by the ASRU.

    The Australian Rugby Union (ARU) should devleop a modern a strategic plan. The Rugby Unions of New Zealand, England and Ireland have such plans. All worth reading from their respective web sites.

    Th secondary schools rugby competition and to some degree Junior Rugby in Sydney/NSW is “all over the place” in terms of competitive standard.

    School 1st XVs and younger age groups winning games by 60 or 70 points is “not a competition”. What is learnt? A reason why I support the proposal.

    Yes. Changes are mooted at Knox Grammar.

    I sense that some schools, hanging onto the past and associated traditions, sometimes do not see the forest for the trees and the opportunities beyond their school gates.

    Both the NRL and AFL know how to attract and retain both players and supporters.


Snort played some undistinguished Rugby at school in Sydney before playing some undistinguished Rugby for Sydney University and a bit more undistinguished Rugby in England. It is a fair summary to say that his career as a player was undistinguished.

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