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Best of enemies: Why the sworn rivalry between rugby codes is now so old-school

Old-school stereotypes are no longer relevant when it comes to football, as Broncos icons Allan Langer and Kevin Walters showed this week. Competition for the best schoolboy and schoolgirl talent has never been hotter, writes Jim Tucker.

Aug 19, 2022, updated Aug 19, 2022
Broncos royalty Allan Langer and Kevin Walters with the Grade 7 rugby league team at Marist College, Ashgrove.

Broncos royalty Allan Langer and Kevin Walters with the Grade 7 rugby league team at Marist College, Ashgrove.

Broncos legend Allan Langer has spent a good chunk of the past 34 years just 3km down the road, yet he had never crossed the threshold into the rugby nursery of Marist College Ashgrove until this week.

He didn’t have to sneak in after dark. Langer and Broncos coach Kevin Walters were invited through the front gates to offer their starpower to the school’s rugby league program.

Langer’s spiritual home is at nearby Red Hill at Broncos HQ. His eyes popped like a teenager when he saw the perfect carpet of grass spread over the school’s main oval and the eager kids playing his sport.  He may as well have been a teenager. The mighty Alfie is not as tall as some Year Nine kids.

There will be other eyeballs popping at this. Those belong to old boys who have missed a subtle yet significant shift. They have misguidedly believed that rugby league turf is as neatly segregated from rugby union territory as a Manchester United supporter is from a Manchester City soccer fan.

The truth is league has been an optional sport in Term Three at AIC private schools since 2019. The term “rugby school” dynamic has becoming increasingly blurred.

Langer delights at what he sees and hears. Leading GPS school Nudgee College, which counts Wallabies James O’Connor, Mark Loane, Paul McLean and Rocky Elsom as old boys, is nurturing several schoolboys already on contracts for the Dolphins’ rise as the next NRL club in 2023.

“If Marist Ashgrove has started, I’m sure other schools are thinking more about league. Hopefully they join in. It’s good to have choice for young fellas,” Langer said.  “These fields at Marist Ashgrove are as good or better than those at the Broncos.”

Walters’ son Billy attended Marist College Ashgrove before his rise to the NRL and his current spot in the Broncos pack.

The Langer-Walters visit created a buzz. As importantly, former Wallabies like Dan and Anthony Herbert, Pat Howard and Paul Carozza were giving back on a series of chilly mornings earlier in the year with coaching for aspiring rugby kids.

Two college products played for the Junior Wallabies this year. Having Aboriginal winger Floyd Aubrey and flanker Nick Baker on that stage was a high point of the past decade for the school.

One team at every level from Year Five fields a rugby league team at Marist at Ashgrove. It’s not five teams in every year level like rugby but it’s a major step.

Yes. At the same school where the grandstand is named after rugby icon John Eales and Wallabies like the Herberts, Des Connor, Howard and Barry Honan all became role models for rugby-mad generations to follow.

“We are the only boarding school in Brisbane which offers competitive rugby league,” said Rockhampton product Ryan Apps, Marist College Ashgrove’s rugby league co-ordinator and a Sydney Roosters Under-20s player back in the 1990s.

“For a lot of boys from the country, that’s their sport but it is also obvious that the school’s rugby program benefits from boys playing more games of football generally. We have league kids committed to the First XV so it flows both ways. I’m still a big one for rugby being a game for every body shape.”

The dynamic has changed since Rev Brother Cyprian was the Kiwi headmaster who switched the college completely to rugby union from league in the early 1950s. It is often said that he had three great hates … communism, rugby league and the Christian Brothers – and not necessarily in that order.

At Iona College, rugby league has a high profile. Old boy, former State of Origin centre and dedicated coach Chris McKenna has seen to that in a heartland league area a punt kick from Wynnum.

Rugby’s international opportunities cannot be matched by league. Iona only this week was honoured with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  The college has been accepted as the Australian representative school at the inaugural Rugby Heritage Cup to be held in France next year before the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

The Under-15s sevens tournament will be a window into rugby’s opportunities even for a league-mad family. Kids have a code choice like never before.

On Tuesday afternoon, Walters did what any invited coach does with 30 minutes to make an impression on eager 11 and 13-year-olds.  He ran an all-in game of touch and shouted out encouragement…”good pass”, “it’s going to be a torpy”, “good try”, “ooh, hospital (pass).”

There were plenty of “Hi Kevvie” calls in return from kids who felt they knew him, so often have they seen him on TV.

The kids hung on his words when he did address them. He wasn’t a zealot trying to convert them on the spot. It was a simple word on teamwork, always giving 100 per cent and having fun with mates.

“It’s good to see kids learning some skills and enjoying themselves,” Walters said.

“Obviously, rugby is the dominant sport at the school but it’s great Marist is playing rugby league so there are different options for different kids. It wasn’t a choice when Billy came through at the school.

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“Nah, we don’t want to come in (to take over). We want kids to have fun whether it’s rugby or league.  “All through the private and state schools of Queensland there is talent. There’s a real career path for boys and now girls who want to play rugby league or rugby union.”

Getting an easier bite at youngsters going to hitherto rugby schools is clearly the subtle shift.
The school footy fields of south-east Queensland are a goldmine. You only have to note the player agents eager to represent talents as young as 15.

This is where crusty league types try to get a cheap chuckle about tweed jackets and leather elbow patches. They are so out of date it’s laughable.  Rugby union is doing good work as well to spread the code’s reach in state schools and the bush. Miami State High won the recent Logan Interschool Sevens.

Boys at the school have a Rugby Sevens Excellence Program, through coaching links with the Queensland Rugby Union, that provides students with an Olympic Games pathway. Again, it’s a wonderful international goal that league doesn’t offer.

The girls at Marsden State High enjoy a wonderfully flexible program that embraces both codes. They can be playing in a rugby sevens tournament one week and in a rugby league competition the next.

The QRU’s State Development Manager Grant Dwyer is a workaholic. He and his regional managers have been on the road in Longreach, Emerald and Bundaberg in recent weeks helping kids sample rugby.

Beside the kids from GPS and AIC schools in the Under-15 Emerging Reds Cup teams, players come from Ipswich State High, Mabel Park State High, Pimpama State Secondary College, Tullawong State High and Keebra Park State High.  All are non-traditional rugby schools with no leather patches in sight. Kids who may play for rugby clubs outside of school have a pathway.

The cookie-cutter stereotype of where eager footy kids can be drawn from for each code just doesn’t fit anymore.  Often, it comes down to teachers and what footy code they want to teach.

“That’s why we are excited with the funding we now have to increase the number of accredited rugby coaches in schools in Queensland,” Dwyer said.

“We had 71 teams, schoolboys and girls, at the Western Sevens in Emerald in July. On August 26, we’ll have sevens tournaments on the same day on the Sunshine Coast, at North Lakes, Cairns and Mackay.

“Creating these opportunities now in rugby are important because we are entering a golden period with the Rugby World Cup coming to Australia in 2027 and 2029 (women) as well as the Olympics.”

Charlotte Caslick and Australia’s women’s sevens team winning the Commonwealth Games gold medal in Birmingham just a few weeks ago was enormous impetus. It was also much-needed with NRLW kicking off this weekend. Any number of players who built skills through rugby sevens are in the league teams.

The competition for Queensland’s elite football talent, both boys and girls, has never been hotter. Throw out the old stereotypes. Chances are they just don’t fit your school anymore.

Jim Tucker has specialised in sport, the wider impacts and features for most of his 40 years writing in the media. His three sons were all schooled at Marist College Ashgrove.

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