Saturday, June 02, 2018

A miserably cold Saturday - start of the NSW GPS Thirds Competition

Saturday in Sydney has been windy, cold and miserable, just the day to stay at home to do some writing. Instead I went to watch school rugby, the start of the NSW GPS (Greater Public Schools) thirds competition, with TAS (the Armidale School) Firsts playing Scots College Thirds. It was good rugby, but Scots was just too strong for TAS this year.

The genesis of the the thirds competition lay the combination of the changes that have taken place in rugby and in the schools. Rugby has become more professional, with a greater weight (pun intended) placed upon big, very fast boys. On the school side, some schools have become much bigger; Scots has something like 2,000 boys, more than three times TAS's size. The composition of the student body has changed with an increase in the number of smaller frame Asian kids less suited to rugby concentrated in particular schools. Schools also now offer many more sporting options in the place of rugby as the dominant winter sport.

There are nine GPS schools, with TAS the only country school. TAS used to play against the Sydney schools from time to time, but was not part of the formal rugby competition. Then TAS had a run of strong teams and forced its way in. This had two effects. It introduced a bye that people did not like and it required each Sydney school to travel to Armidale from time to time. TAS traveled to Sydney every second weekend, while each Sydney school visited Armidale every second year. Certain of the Sydney schools, one in particular, did not like this and TAS was forced out of the rugby, reducing the competition back to eight teams.

Then two Sydney schools, High and Grammar, began to lose by very large margins and were finally forced to withdraw from the Firsts competition. This provided an opportunity for TAS. A thirds competition was created that allowed TAS to play along with High and Grammar. For the first time for many years, there was actually a GPS rugby competition that allowed all nine schools to play. Again there was a bye and travel to Armidale once every two years.

 I became involved at this point since I now had a competition to follow. I started commenting on the Green & Gold GPS rugby forum and especially the GPS forum with preseason and match reports and end season summaries. I was unashamedly promoting the thirds comp as the only full GPS competition with my support for the minnows - TAS, High and Grammar - clear but not preventing a broader view. I was sufficiently active that I acquired the nickname of Father Jim, Padre of the thirds! I'm not sure what the schools or indeed the boys would have thought of that, but I was mildly chuffed.

The thirds competition was a considerable success, but again problems emerged. Scheduling was a particular problem Your had the two top levels where six schools were playing firsts and seconds against each other and then the thirds and below where schools were playing different grades. Thus TAS, High and Grammar firsts played thirds,  their seconds played the fifths, their 16As played the 16Cs and so on. The top six rugby schools found themselves playing at different grounds for their top teams and thirds and below, a problem made worse if the games were in Armidale. There was still a problem among the six in diverging standards, while that dratted Armidale trip remained a problem.

The problem seems to have come to a head a bit over two years ago when one Sydney school reportedly said point blank that it would not send teams to Armidale. If TAS wanted to play them, then the school and its teams should come to Sydney. Otherwise, no games.

Faced with all these problems, the GPS took reasonably drastic action. The top competition was shortened to just five games with each school playing all the other six just once. Newington apparently took a hit by dropping out of the formal thirds competition, thus removing the bye, something I still don't think was fair to the boys. The thirds competition was reduced to seven rounds. Apart from Grammar and High who had existing voluntary relationships to TAS, no Sydney school was required to come to Armidale as part of the competition. TAS accepted that this would mean more travel. It also seems to be the case that the school had to reduce the number of teams sent to Sydney to play to fit in with the Sydney schools. Finally, the reduced competition was associated with a broader range of pre-season games especially with CAS (Combined Associated Schools)

This format has been continued into 2018 with pre-season games between three school groups - GPS, CAS and ISA (Independents Schools Association). This has been a considerable success, although it is no mean feat to follow such a large number of schools across multiple grades. This delayed my pre-season report, something that Crackerjack remdined me of on G&G. .
Can we send out a search party for Father Jim of the 3rds? 
We are a mere 62 hours (or thereabouts) from kick-off of the 2018 Hon. Jim Belshaw Plate/Cup, and we are all travelling ‘blind’ here without the benefit of Jim’s entomological xls. analysis of all the 3’s Season’s prospects! 
As Lleyton might say, Jim, “C’mon!!” :)
The first thirds games are now up and it should be an interesting competition. But will it be the last? The rumbles continue in this regard with no decisions apparently made about next year's format.

I know all this is just a school story, if one important to me. But lurking below it are broader issues, nevertheless.

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