Heroes to zeros and back again
September 29, 2011
Kelston Boys High School celebrate with the Barbarian Cup following their recent victory over Wesley College © KBHS
It could be a big-budget movie. A school rugby team brawl their way into the headlines before a coach inspires a dramatic change in fortunes and steers his side to glory. But this is not Hollywood and neither Samuel L Jackson nor Denzel Washington are anywhere to be seen.
Welcome to Kelston Boys High School in the suburbs of Auckland - the former bad boys of New Zealand Schools rugby but now the cream of the crop.
Unlike many of their rivals, Kelston does not boast a century or more of on-field excellence having only been founded in the 1950s. It took them a quarter of a century to muscle their way into Auckland's elite and several more years before they captured the city's rugby crown. Local bragging rights would later be superseded by four national titles in the space of ten seasons and victory in the first World Secondary Schools Championship.
But success deserted them at the turn of the century and that frustration boiled over in spectacular fashion during a semi-final clash against Auckland Grammar School in 2009. The controversy made them front page news and the subsequent damage to their public profile over-shadowed the hefty suspensions handed down to the players involved.
A reputation forged under the likes of former headmaster and future All Blacks coach Graham Henry and enhanced by the production of 10 All Blacks including Va'aiga Tuigamala, Kees Meuws, Sam Tuitupou and current international Mils Muliaina took a hammering.
That season was especially memorable for Athens Henare as it was his first in charge of the First XV. "The pressure on our players is huge," he explains. "A lot of these kids see rugby as a way out and they feel the pressure of their families and community and TV coverage has only added to that. But that is not to say it is alright to fight."
Henare, a former pupil and First XV player like the other members of his coaching team, believes his players suffered more than they should have in the wake of the altercation. "There was a red card and another yellow card and the boys just got frustrated," he laments. "The whole thing was over in about two minutes but was blown up by the media. After the match the players were awesome, like brothers again, but the next day the papers went berserk. "
An "ugly" trial followed that resulted in severe and lengthy suspension for many of the Kelston players with their Auckland counterparts getting off relatively lightly to cause another media storm. "It hurt our community but because we told the truth and accepted the consequences of our actions I think we came out better," added Henare before quickly switching to the positives that arose from a dark day in their history. "It brought us closer together as a school and a community but it was pretty tough, especially for the boys and I was worried for some as rugby was everything to them."
Henare also welcomed the opportunity to underline the school's values. "As a coach I have always stressed the importance of commitment between brothers and family, being humble in victory and defeat and sacrifice.
"It can be difficult to find the balance between school, training and playing. Many of them have church and some have to look after their siblings as their parents work. That's a huge commitment for a lot of these boys and it takes sacrifice to make it work."
Many of that side returned the following year with renewed vigour because they wanted to "make things right" and didn't want to end their school careers on such a low note. "We just started again," explained Henare, "with a good work ethic, fitness and high standards on and off the field. But the key thing was that if they did something wrong then they had to face the consequences. So, if they didn't turn up for school for a couple of days we would put them on the bench."
But success would elude them - the price of "not playing as a team". Instead it was left to a new generation of players to return the school to former glories but not before an agonising loss in the final of the Auckland competition. "We probably didn't play to our potential in the final but the way I put it to the boys was that we may have lost the Tri-Nations but we would win the World Cup."
Henare believes his side's inexperience served them well as they wrapped up the national title with a 24-14 victory over Wesley College in the tournament finale last month. "The guys just listened and followed the game plan," said the modest coach. "When things went wrong they just went back to the bread and butter of the game plan. We also had an experienced guy at first-five in Taylor Adams and he just ran the show. That was probably the secret because there was nothing new or innovative. We had the talent; it was just a case of channelling that it into the team which is where we have struggled previously."
The school maintains strong ties with many ex-pupils and staff and one high-profile old boy in particular would have been among the first to pass judgement on their success. "I always send a text to Graham [Henry] and he always texts back to say 'well done' or 'hard luck'," reveals Henare. "He obviously also taught at [Auckland] Grammar but when the boys asked him who he was supporting he said 'Kelston'."
Victory in the season finale capped an outstanding year that also saw the team lay claim to the Moascar Cup - the schools rugby equivalent to the Ranfurly Shield - and both trophies now have pride of place among Kelston's many other accolades.
Unsurprisingly, success has brought interest from leading clubs but the school is keen to stress that a professional career is not the be-all-and-end-all. "We've have rugby agents who come in," explains Henare. "We have this relationship with [management company] Inside Running and they come in to talk to the boys. They tell them that only 3% make it as pros and they ask if they have a Plan B. That is really important and something we are trying to push.
Auckland's Nathan Hughes and Southland's Cardiff Vaega are just two recent graduates to make the ITM Cup grade and they look set to be joined by the 17-year-old Adams who has attracted interest from Auckland and Southland while fullback Lolaga Visinia is set to kick on from his New Zealand Schools selection with a move into the pro ranks. But many more fall by the wayside as a result of the many distractions that vie for the attention of a young man. "It is really easy to go off track," recalls Henare, "When I was at school there were a lot of really talented boys but many were lost to the game as they got distracted by girls or drink."
Henare, who has now stepped down from the head coach role, is reluctant to take credit for the side's success and instead is keen to stress the importance of the school's general approach. "I believe in our coaching philosophy and our work ethic. And we've been quite successful so something must be working."
But make no mistake, Henare is going nowhere. "The school gave me so much," he adds with pride. "And it's always been about giving something back."
Kelston Boys at the 2011 Rugby World Cup:
Kelston Boys High School - Internationals:
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.