Chasing the All Black dream
"When a kid is born here in New Zealand, one of their aunties or uncles will buy them a little All Blacks jersey, a little ball, and he'll be dreaming of playing for the All Blacks from the time he laces up boots." Gordon Hunt, 1st XV coach, Rotorua Boys High School
Isaac hesitates when I ask him if he feels under any pressure to make it as an All Black. Eventually, and mercifully, his mate Mason fills the uncomfortable silence. "I feel the pressure," whispers Mason. "Just knowing there are other boys out there who want it and knowing you have to put in the extra yards. It's important, it's going to be my job for life."
On the walls of the principal's office are reminders that the path from Rotorua Boys High School 1st XV to the All Blacks is a well-trodden one. And not just the All Blacks: there, opposite a jersey signed by Jonah Lomu (not an old boy, but 'discovered' by principal Chris Grinter over in Auckland) is an England shirt worn by hooker Dylan Hartley.
"Dylan was a good student and had pretty good skills for a big fella," says Hunt. "But I meant to ask him when I last met him, 'what's with all these punch-ups?' He was a softie at school. He used to be into the cheap stuff but he never used to throw his dukes."
Dylan Hartley has established himself in the England side after leaving New Zealand. Picture: Getty
Hartley left Rotorua BHS in 2002, the year they won the national schools championship (scoring 137 tries in 21 games) and a year before they won the schools World Cup for the first time. Hartley's 1st XV skipper was All Black Liam Messam, one of three Rotorua BHS old boys who toured Europe with the All Blacks in 2009. "We don't like losing," says Hunt, and with players like that at his disposal, it does not happen very often.
Schools rugby in New Zealand is a big deal, closer in nature to high school sport in the United States than in the United Kingdom. Since last year, the knockout stages of the national schools championship have been aired on the Rugby Channel, while the biggest clashes attract more fans than some provincial matches.
"Our 1st XV boys end up being like demi-gods," says Hunt, who captained the 1st XV himself, back in 1993. "That's why New Zealand is so strong in rugby, because of our junior competitions. Our boys, they train every day, they're almost like professionals.
"It's ingrained in you as kids - if you can be good at rugby, you can make that All Blacks team, earn the ultimate status. But I preach to our boys to be realistic - only 1% of 1st XVs in any one year go through to pro rugby, and even less become All Blacks. You can be a star in your 1st XV, but at the next level you're just an average Joe."
Hunt cites the age-old enemies of youthful ambition, girls and booze, as the principal reason potential All Blacks lose their footing on the way to the summit, pivot and slip and ultimately come up short. "I had the same dreams as well," he says, "but I didn't work hard enough, and if you don't put the effort in, you don't really deserve it. You don't even deserve to dream it.
"Our first five-eighth, Ryubyn Vaipo, he should be an All Black. But he's got star status already, so the girls are chasing him and I've seen him drop off on his training. Part of our rugby culture is that we like a drink. That's been the ruin of many a good player, too.
"I've seen a few friends make it all the way, and the difference is discipline. They brushed off the beer and the girlfriends and that's why they became All Blacks - they wanted it more than others, and that's why they got it."
The Rotorua BHS 1st XV team which won the schools World Cup in 2003. Picture: Gordon Hunt
Professor Steve Jackson, who specialises in the socio-cultural analysis of sport at the University of Otago in Dunedin, believes having such narrow horizons has its drawbacks. "It's a bad thing to be so narrowly defined [by rugby union]," says Jackson. "It offers a very shallow view of who you are as a people and it's also bad for its citizens, in the sense that if you are a young person who doesn't like rugby, where do you find your place?"
Jackson says that Maori males, in particular, are ultimately defined by their prowess on the rugby field. "Playing games and physical activity is a huge component of what Maori do, as well as doing things collectively," says Jackson. "Historically, they're often channelled into rugby and not given the opportunities to pursue other avenues or play other sports.
"But also the reason Maori are so prevalent in rugby union is because of the spirituality of the team, the religious base of things. The strength often comes from this togetherness."
While Hunt agrees that this spiritual aspect produces plenty of powerful Maori-dominated schools sides, especially in and around the Maori heartland of Rotorua, he believes this intense love affair with the school jersey proves too intoxicating for many.
"That jersey means everything to us, too much sometimes," says Hunt. "They leave school and they lose their pride, their passion. They go to play club rugby and it's just not the same intensity or camaraderie and they end up dropping out.
"We've got a saying here: 'Boys High 'Til We Die'. That's inculcated into them. There's a brotherhood here at Rotorua Boys High School, they will do anything for their jersey and each other."
When I tell my editor I will be speaking to members of Rotorua BHS's 1st XV, he tells me he wants a photo: 'You, flanked by two of their biggest forwards.' It does not quite work out like that. Isaac Te Aute, who played for the 1st XV when he was just 14, must be 10 stone soaking wet. But in New Zealand rugby, size isn't everything, and Hunt is convinced one of Isaac's jerseys will be up there on the principal's wall one day fairly soon.
All Black Liam Messam (with ball) is another former pupil of Rotorua Boys High School. Picture: Getty
"When you watch our boys playing junior rugby, it's all about running with the ball, and they aren't restricted by their position," says Hunt. "We've had some English boys come out to our rugby academy and they're big, but they're drones, and even Dylan's like that now. The forwards have had it drummed into them what their role is, the way they play is dictated by the numbers on their back."
"We call our style of play 'mongrelism'," says 15-year-old Mason Walker, who along with Isaac, has been dragged out of a woodwork lesson to speak to me and who Hunt reckons will be playing for New Zealand schoolboys next season. "We're little, but rough and tough. Kicking? Nah, we run it from anywhere, that's a lot more enjoyable."
Mongrel-in-chief at Rotorua BHS is Teimana Harrison, captain of the 1st XV. But the dynamic open-side does not want to be an All Black, instead he dreams of following in the footsteps of Hartley and donning the white of England.
"I emailed [former England full-back] Dusty Hare at Northampton and said there's a boy here with British heritage," says Hunt. "Dusty must get plenty of emails like that, but Dylan came out and watched him play and told Dusty we need to get him for the team.
"The Bay of Plenty coach wants to keep him here and is trying to dangle the New Zealand Under-20 carrot in front of him, but there's no guarantees there. He'd probably crack it here, but he'll definitely crack it over there in England.
"I said to him, 'when you go to England, you're only going to be little, but your difference will be your ball-skills, your flair'. In terms of where Dylan was and Teimana is, Teimana is miles ahead. Watch out for that name. He's hugely excited about it, we all are."
Hunt takes me on a tour of his school's sporting relics - which include a golf shirt signed by Danny Lee, a PGA professional and another former pupil - and we end up in the inner sanctum, the school's 1st XV 'shed'. And there, above the exit, is that sign: 'Boys High 'Til We Die'. Touched by the hands of Hartley and many an All Black on their way to 'The One', as the 1st XV pitch is called, it is a beautiful reminder of how much rugby means to many a New Zealand schoolboy and the dizzy heights to which it can take you.
After Hunt concludes the tour, I tell him that something has been playing on my mind: "Mason and Isaac, they're not going to get into trouble for skipping that woodwork class?" "Nah," shrugs Hunt, "they're in the 1st XV now, they can pretty much do what they like."