In the search for a level playing field, you’re bound to cop a few bumps and bruises

Having questioned the growing professionalism of GPS schoolboy rugby, Michael Blucher is left in no doubt that passion is still in strong supply.

Aug 07, 2020, updated Aug 07, 2020
Passions continue to run high in the search for an even playing field in GPS rugby (AAP photo)

Passions continue to run high in the search for an even playing field in GPS rugby (AAP photo)

Well, it seems a lot of people have a view about GPS rugby.

The opinion piece I wrote last week, pointing out what I believed to be serious flaws in the way GPS rugby was currently being run was widely shared, and triggered an avalanche of comment.

The range of feedback was interesting – everything from “this bloke’s absolutely nailed it”, through to “I’ve never read such as sooky, whingey whiney piece of crap in my life”.

And that commentary didn’t even come from my wife.

What was very clear from the response – there’s little broad thinking on the issue, very little generosity of spirit. Parents in particular are only prepared to look through the lens that focuses sharply on their own set of circumstances – and nothing else.

What’s happening, and how does it affect me, and those I’m charged with protecting?

Perhaps that’s just human nature. Perhaps it happens in every situation. But in the apparent prestige of GPS rugby, it’s pronounced.

The bloke whose boy has been relegated to the 2nds or the 3rds, or the 15B’s on account of scholarship influence, he’s filthy. Yep – that Inqld bloke nailed it.

The same for the mother of the boy who plays basketball – Bloody rugby – what about some funding for our sport?

The father of the boy in the team that’s not propped up with emerging rugby league prodigies – he’s also furious with the proliferation of scholarships. “It’s rubbish. It’s not a fair contest”.

But the parents of the boy who’s not on scholarship, and still playing in the school’s all powerful, premiership-winning 1sts, alongside a host of boys who’ve been injected into the school in Year 11 (at the earliest) … “sooky whinging whining piece of crap”.

What’s wrong with a bit of competition? Life, after all, is a contest – step up or step out.

It seems this malaise of myopia it even applies to the nine GPS headmasters – who I’m sure, are good people, just trying to do a difficult and complex job to the best of their ability. Clearly, they all face different pressures.

For a couple, if their rugby program isn’t strong, their larger donors will threaten to walk, such is the importance of the results, at least to some – many – of the alumni. These are grown men, mind you, worrying about 17-year-olds in different coloured jerseys kicking a football. Disturbing.

Other principals need a strong rugby team for marketing purposes – visibility and presence in their local community. I get that – the bottom line. Enrolments. Dollars and cents. The meeting commercial imperatives.

For others, it’s simply about pride. For all manner of reasons, they can’t have their 1sts being beaten 70-0. It doesn’t fit in with the school’s standards of excellence. It does nothing for school morale. Besides, what will the Old Boys’ think? It’s embarrassing. Out of sheer desperation, they join the arms race. Bring ‘em in. Recruit, recruit, … whoever we can. As long as they’re big and strong.

And then there’s the ever present, ever increasing external forces, the rugby league clubs with their agenda – do they care where kids go to school, and what sort of education they get? As long as they are playing footy, and their on-field skills are developing?

Not a hope in hell.

As I said everybody focusing on their own individual needs. The world according to them.

What was interesting was the feedback from genuine rugby people – everybody from former Wallaby captains, elite level (professional) players – some, like Berrick Barnes, are former scholarship recipients themselves – right through to the 5th grade bar flies – the veterans of 250 pretty average lower grade games, but the lifeblood of every strong district club.

They’re looking at what’s going on, and collectively they’re thinking: WTF? What’s happening? 1st XV coaches earning six figure sums, for eight games of football, kids running around with GPS monitors built into the jerseys, teams staying in five-star hotels, prior to “big” games, to ensure they are properly prepared.

And my personal favourite – a parent of a 1st XV player – personally funding a scholarship just to give his kid the best chance of winning the premiership. Nobody can stop that.

But just for a second… let’s not worry about who’s to blame, let’s face the reality … whatever we’re doing … now … IT’S NOT WORKING TERRIBLY WELL!

In the context of scholarships – rugby union is being outsmarted by rugby league.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it!

I reiterate – I’m not anti-scholarships. Scholarships, administered and managed the right way, have huge merit. They benefit an enormous number of people, they open doors, they change lives.

But at the moment, the system is benefitting a precious (and protected) few, at the expense of the interests of the majority.
As Andrew Slack, Grand Slam-winning Wallaby captain, and purveyor of all things common sense pointed out: “With the scholarships system – what works for one, even if it suits a select few – that doesn’t mean the system is working”.

Slack concedes he’s not across the specific detail of what’s currently going on in GPS rugby – who’s buying whom, who’s winning, and who’s getting belted – he tuned out long ago.

But he’s convinced this much is true: “If the current practices are directed towards a select few, and at the same time negatively impacting the majority of students, then there’s a problem. And that’s well before the interests of rugby are taken into account.”

That’s the thrust of my assertions. The current practice of “bursarial offerings” in GPS schools (not just in rugby, but in other sports as well) – is it honestly representing the best interests of the majority of the students, taking into account the myriad different roles school life plays in the development of teenagers?

And a secondary question, how is what’s going on playing out in the development and retention of emerging rugby talent in Queensland?

I’m not convinced we can put a “tick” in either of those boxes.

But that’s just my opinion, as sooky and whingey and whiney as it may be.

You’re very welcome to disagree.

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