Andrew Gourdie: Saint Kentigern College offering a reality check for Kiwi sport

Opinion 09/12/2018
Photo: Photosport.

By Andrew Gourdie, RadioLIVE sport host.

OPINION: Back in 2009, a football club was in hot pursuit of a young prospect.

It was alleged the club broke the rules: offering the player's parents €100,000 (NZ$165,540) each, and a house, to sign him.

The boy already had an agreement with his current club, but it was clear where he wanted to go. Ultimately, the big club with the cash got their man.

The small club was Le Havre. The big club was Manchester United. The player was Paul Pogba: a World Cup winner, and one of the best, most marketable players in football.

His story is infamous, but not unique. There are thousands of others like it. 

The story goes along the lines of small club develops player, then the player gets picked up on big money by bigger club, selling the dream. They get what they want every single time. This is a reality of modern sport.

One of the things that has stood out In the wake of this week's Saint Kentigern College boycott saga is the argument that the school's pursuit of young prospects somehow destroys the innocence of youth - the feeling that schoolboys should be left to enjoy their footy and a "normal" upbringing with their friends at their school of choice.

Sport isn't "normal". Sport doesn't work like that. And those kids? They want this. They want to be the best, and will do almost anything to ensure they become the sporting superstar everyone's telling them they're going to be.

When it comes to being an athlete, everything in sport happens early, and it happens fast.

Being an athlete is not like training to become a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer, a teacher - whatever traditional vocation you can think of where you complete secondary school, continue study at university for several years, get your degree before heading into the workplace to begin a career spanning 40-45 years. Ever wondered why your local GP isn't a 'teenage sensation'? It doesn't work like that.

But in sport, if you're not a teenage sensation, then you almost have to ask whether you're wasting your time. By the time a professional sporting prospect turns 18 they already have their degree, so to speak.

By this point, they've already been identified, tapped up, selected for the first XI or first XV, the North Island/South Island/national secondary schools team, and have a strong idea about whether their career will pan out as they had hoped. A successful career will see them play for several different clubs or franchises over a period of just 15-20 years, earning enough money to ideally last a lifetime.

What Saint Kentigern College is doing by hand-picking the best talent for their first XV is consistent with the reality of modern professional sport right around the world. The sooner we all realise New Zealand, and rugby, is no different, the better. I have absolutely no reason to support Saint Kents in any way, but it's difficult to sit here from an impartial point of view and say they're doing wrong by the players at the heart of the matter. Clearly they benefit from their recruitment policy, but Saint Kents appear to offer a high quality of education, and their sporting roll call speaks for itself: they convert a high number of schoolboys into sporting stars.

And if not Saint Kents, then who? It will be the Sydney Roosters, the Melbourne Storm, the Brisbane Broncos - professional clubs with big cheque books desperate to find the next big thing. At least this way, these players remain in rugby, and remain in New Zealand.

In New Zealand, secondary school rugby is now a young player's introduction to professionalism. The schools are now filling a gap occupied by big clubs and franchises in other sports around the world. A young rugby player moving from one New Zealand secondary school to Saint Kentigern is, on a smaller scale, no different to Paul Pogba moving from Le Havre to Manchester United at the age of 16.

Those with the money, whatever their motivation, will pursue the best. As long as the education, sporting facilities, coaching, development, support that they are offering is the best, then does the motivation really matter?

Andrew Gourdie is a Newshub sports presenter and host of RadioLIVE's Sunday Sport.