By Steve Hepburn for the Otago Daily Times

As controversy surrounds a leading Auckland rugby college for allegations of player poaching, we take a look back at what it was like to be in its first XV team five years ago.

Ten Auckland principals have agreed to boycott major private school Saint Kentigern College in the city’s premier rugby competition due to its approach to recruiting players to its first XV.

However, the college’s principal David Hodge says College Sport Auckland sets the rules for the competition and they abide by them.

He wants New Zealand Rugby to intervene to help resolve the matter.

A letter signed by the principals of ten Auckland colleges – Aorere College, Auckland Grammar, De La Salle College, Dilworth School, Kelston Bou’s High School, Liston College, Mt Albert Grammar, One Tree Hill College, Sacred Heart College and St Peter’s College – has told St Kentigern’s it won’t play them next year.

The below article was published on 21 June 2013, giving an insight into the St Kentigern’s rugby programme.

Rugby writer Steve Hepburn visited St Kentigern College in Auckland. The college’s First XV has not been beaten in more than 40 games, won the national schools title last year, and is the reigning world schools champion.

In 2013, Otago Daily Times’ rugby writer Steve Hepburn visited St Kentigern College in Auckland. Here is what he had to say about it:

Is it fun? That is the question that lingers when you look at a top rugby school programme.

Are teenagers, training up to six days a week, including 6.30am starts three times a week, just to play rugby, having fun?

St Kentigern College First XV coach Tai Lavea says yes, it is fun, and if it was not, players would soon walk away.

None has, which suggests to him he is tracking fine.

”We do balance things up. Next Monday, instead of having a weights session we are going to go and do some paintball,” Lavea told the Otago Daily Times.

”That is a key thing – to get the balance right. Balance is crucial. We work with the boarding house and they can tell us if the guys might need a change.”

But change does not seem on the agenda for Lavea’s boys.

Take a look at their record and it is pretty obvious why they will stick to what they are doing.

Last month, St Kentigern College won the world schools title in Japan, winning six games in eight days.

The side is on a 42-match unbeaten run, and has 20 players back from last year’s squad that won the national First XV title, defeating Otago Boys’ High School in the final.

But does success come down to which school has the deepest pockets?Lavea, employed fulltime at the school as First XV coach and director of rugby, admitted player recruitment was fierce between top schools in Auckland, but said success was the best way to attract players.

”It is a fine line on what is recruitment and what isn’t. But there are a lot of people applying to come here.

”You look at someone like our prop last year, Siona Mafileo. He is now in France playing for the New Zealand under-20s. Would he have done that if he had not come here?”

Joe Edwards was up the road at Edgewater College and rang me up to come here for his last two years at school. Now he is in France, too.

”To me, it does not get celebrated enough. The success. The way the guys develop. We are helping these guys on a career pathway.

”Many see us as plucking players left, right and centre. But for us, a lot of it comes down to developing players and getting young kids playing to their best.”

Lavea said a good young player would have offers from up to half a dozen schools when he was deciding on secondary education.

Lavea made no judgement on whether that was right or wrong. It was just a fact of life.

”This is a massive competition in Auckland. Huge. This is the toughest schools competition in the country and competition is fierce.”

When you look around St Kentigern, a private Presbyterian co-educational school of 1700 pupils, you see it obviously does not do things by halves.

Beautiful lush grounds, with water views, the envy of many property developers. Fees are $20,000 and more a year. The school has a pool, an artificial hockey turf, a weights room and a massive gymnasium.

Its strength and conditioning coach is former Otago decathlete Scott McLaren, who works with most of the school’s top teams.

Rumours persist of a massive budget for rugby – possibly as much as $1 million – but Lavea said that was not his department.

”I can’t comment on that. But there are five or six schools in Auckland who make rugby a top priority. If you do not keep up then you get left behind. At the moment, we are being hunted.”

Lavea (33), the twin brother of former Kiwis league international Tasesa, admits his side does not lack for much.

”Sure, we are well-resourced but we just always want to go to the next level.

”We got a scrum machine last year. Before that it was cones and poles. And those things are massive. They do make a difference. But we didn’t go out and buy them straight away.”

He said no team could simply train twice a week, roll up and play on Saturday, and attain success.

”They might win games, they might get through to the semifinals and the final. But they wouldn’t win it. That would be the team that has trained the hardest and was continually getting better.”

Lavea, who declined to reveal his salary, came on board in 2010 and is an old boy of the school, growing up in South Auckland, attending the school as a pupil on a cricket and rugby scholarship.

He said much of the achievement of recent years was a tribute to headmaster Steve Cole, who took over in 2009.

”It comes from the top. It really does. He is a big rugby man and that flows through to the team.”

Lavea said top players would always gravitate to the big schools.

”Rugby and rugby league are good products, and if you are a rugby player then you want to be an All Black.

”How do you do that? Obviously, being seen on television playing for your First XV really helps. And getting developed as a player. In this day and age staying focused on that goal [making the All Blacks] is not easy.”

Year 9 and year 10 pupils at the school are instructed by Lavea four times a week, as they can take rugby as a subject. Year 10 pupils have been in the First XV in recent years.

He said alcohol bans – about half the team were aged 18 – had been placed on the team at times if a critical period was coming up.

”We might look at putting on a four-week ban, and that includes not going out. But we’ll talk to the senior guys in the team about it. And everyone has bought into it.

”And the guys have to keep up in the academic area, too. If they don’t then they will miss out. Same with the team. If you miss a training, you won’t play on Saturday. And this is in a team where competition is fierce. So players don’t miss training.

”We have a massive diversity of cultures here and we have to mesh them all together.”

He appears to have done that pretty well so far but Lavea was not looking too far ahead this season.

”We simply want to get into the top four of the Auckland competition. That is going to be hard enough.”

Monday: Weights session 6.30am, video and skills session 3.45pm.

Tuesday: Day off.

Wednesday: Weights and conditioning 6.30am, team session 3.45pm.

Thursday: Weights session 6.30am, team session 3.45pm.

Friday: Captain’s run 4pm.

Saturday: Strapping starts at noon, all assembled and in building by 1pm, game kick-off 2.30pm.

Sunday: Pool recovery 8am.

All pupils have laptops, so debriefing is sometimes done at lunchtimes by players themselves.

The team has a fulltime coach, an assistant coach (teaches at school), a strength and conditioning coach (employed fulltime for all the school’s top teams) and a manager (teaches at school).

– This article was published on the Otago Daily Times in 2013.