19 Mar 2024

‘They saw me as a cheat and a liar’ - The dramatic tension in a school rowing dispute

12:30 pm on 19 March 2024

After allegations of cheating were levelled at Hamilton Boys' High School's rowing programme, the coach in charge confessed to breaking the rules. But there was a lot still to argue over, an RNZ investigation reveals.

One of the leading contenders at the secondary schools rowing championships should have been barred from competing at this year's regatta in Twizel, rivals have claimed.

Hamilton Boys' High School (HBHS) was last year fined and stripped of several titles after a Rowing NZ investigation found it had committed 17 rule breaches over the 2021-2023 seasons.

The breaches included entering ineligible rowers in novice races, and failing to officially register those changes in the system.

The cheating scandal continues to cast a shadow at this week's Maadi Regatta.

Some in the sport believe the findings of the investigation should have spelt "game over" for the school's involvement in the national championships.

One Auckland coach, who asked not to be named out of concern there would be fallout for his school, has questioned how Rowing NZ landed on the sanctions.

"It should have been game over for them at the Maadi Cup, for the foreseeable future anyway," he says.

"I cannot understand how Hamilton Boys' managed to escape any bans given what they've been getting away with for so many years. It was so unbelievably widespread."

HBHS supporters say banning their crews from competing in subsequent regattas would only punish the students, who are blameless in the situation.

The coach says part of the ongoing friction for schools is the secrecy surrounding the investigation.

The details of the disciplinary process remain unclear to many in the rowing community, with New Zealand Secondary Schools Rowing Association (NZSSRA) and HBHS, until now, only addressing the scandal through tightly-worded statements.

The two parties have also signed a confidentiality agreement, after HBHS hired a top-tier law firm to fight the allegations.

But a letter leaked to RNZ reveals the tense legal battle that played out behind the scenes.

Rowing gear for the Hamilton Boys High School team

Some in the Hamilton Boys' High School community believe they were harshly dealt with by Rowing NZ. Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

'Veiled threats' and legal papers

As the disciplinary hearing neared, HBHS rowing director Glenn Ross wrote to the wider rowing community in mid-June last year in an apparent attempt to rally support for the school.

In his letter, Ross, who has since stepped down from his role, expressed alarm at the "heavy-handed approach" taken by the NZSSRA, "including a highly litigious process, that in my view goes against the spirit of the sport".

The letter also sets out the timeline of events. It states HBHS was first notified of a complaint prior to last year's Maadi Regatta in Karapiro. Ross says the school accepted it had breached the regulations and immediately sent a letter of apology to the governing body.

Ross claims in the letter the NZSSRA, assisted by Rowing NZ officials, responded by "slapping two legal documents" on HBHS, which included 29 pages of evidence.

"Most of those twenty-nine pages focussed on reinforcing the perception that they saw me as a cheat and a liar, and they saw HBHS rowing as an organisation that uses cheating to create a strategic advantage," he wrote.

He added that HBHS was forced to seek legal representation because of the NZSSRA's approach.

Ross's letter suggests he made poor decisions for the sake of giving all rowers a chance to race.

But critics of HBHS reject that, saying the breaches were more calculated.

One senior official closely connected with the investigation says the findings clearly revealed "a systematic approach to manipulating the rules over a number of years".

Among the sanctions proposed by the NZSSRA was to ban the HBHS rowing programme from the North Island secondary schools competition, which was raced earlier this month.

In his letter, Ross also claims officials made several other "veiled threats", including banning the whole HBHS rowing programme from this year's Maadi Regatta.

"The proposed sanctions as they stand will impact all HBHS rowers, including those who have yet to start in the programme," Ross wrote.

Along with a $5000 fine and being stripped of titles and medals won at two Maadi regatta and two North Island secondary schools championships, HBHS ended up receiving a "conditional suspension", meaning it could be banned from one NZSSRA event if it commits further breaches in the next two years.

Susan Hassall - Principal of Hamilton Boys' High School.

HBHS principal Susan Hassall Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

'Dirty laundry' has been laid out - principal

Addressing the scandal for the first time publicly, HBHS principal Susan Hassall bristles at the mention of the word cheating.

"I hate that word," she says.

"There was no intention to defraud. And I'll say that over and over, because it's the absolute truth.

"The whole situation last year was when we were found to have been in breach, I sent an apology letter straightaway … we accepted that we'd breached the regulations, there was an error. Then we found a second breach, and we recognised the fact that was caused by a similar set of circumstances. We've done nothing but apologise and accept the fact that we did something wrong."

But Hassall's assertion is at odds with Ross' explanation of events.

In his letter addressed to "fellow coaches, managers and rowing mentors" Ross admitted that his actions were intentional.

"I twice knowingly rowed boys in U15 races at a regatta during one season, and then deliberately didn't register their names [in the system], as I wanted to preserve their novice status for the following season," he wrote.

"My sole intention was simply to allow boys to race. This was particularly relevant as both incidents took place during the extraordinary times of Covid, when just getting organised racing was a hard enough task.

"My offending then included trying to ensure that two would-be novices did not break status for the following year, so they then wouldn't be faced with racing against boys with significantly more experience than themselves."

The explanation doesn't wash with one Auckland coach, who says illness is part of the sport you have to manage.

"Playing the Covid card, to me, is a cop out. Every school battled with that. It seems like a convenient excuse more than anything."

The coach claims the rule breaches that were uncovered were only the "tip of the iceberg" of offending by the school.

The breaches came to light after Rowing NZ received a tip-off from a whistleblower that HBHS had been switching out crews of novices with ineligible rowers, and having them race under the names of the boys originally entered.

The difficulty for officials was trying to retroactively prove that the boys in the boat were not the same as those on the entry form.

Asked if he was confident that officials had caught all incidences of rule breaches, Rowing NZ's Mark Weatherall responded: "We looked at a three year period and I'm confident that in that three year period we did a really thorough job and we identified and confirmed the [complaint] that was raised."

General Manager of Community & Development at Rowing NZ Mark Weatherall.

Rowing NZ's Mark Weatherall Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

HBHS had been dealt with "appropriately", and the outcome of the investigation sent a clear message that rule breaches will be dealt with seriously.

"Look, I guess there's different views of what happened and how it happened and why it happened, but the reality is that we found the [allegations] to be valid and we dealt with that school appropriately," Weatherall says.

"The process we went through has sent a clear message to the schools that that behaviour can not be tolerated, and that [we] will take that seriously and act on it - the integrity of the sport is the utmost."

Hassall, who will step down as principal of HBHS at the end of the term after 25 years in charge, says the school has conducted its own investigation, and is confident there were no other rule breaches.

She believes some of the schools pointing fingers should be looking inward.

"We're not alone in those breaches, especially through that Covid period and other schools are aware of the fact that the same things happened with them," she says.

"What more do they want from us? We have laid all our dirty laundry out on the table now."

Caleb Shepard, Director of Rowing at Hamilton Boys' High School.

HBHS rowing director Caleb Shepherd Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

The heavy toll on students

HBHS rowing director Caleb Shepherd, who took over the top job in the wake of last year's scandal, says the saga has taken a massive toll on the team's coaches and management, as well as the students.

He says the school has since reviewed its systems, processes and "drive to get things right" to ensure these types of rule breaches do not occur again.

"The impact it's had on those involved has been significant and really challenging for them as human beings. To make the decisions that needed to be made and come out the other end of it has been a work in progress," says Shepherd, who coxed the women's eight to a silver medal at the Tokyo Olympics.

"Teenagers live in an online world that we never really had to the extent that they do. I know some of them have, have dealt with some pretty tricky stuff online, some abuse and things like that. All we've done is try our best to support them through it. Luckily, the vast majority have lifted up those ones who have struggled. Although it's been some trying times, it is cool to see how they've come out the other end of it."

Tony O'Connor, a coach at Christ's College - an exclusive boys school in Christchurch, says while substituting one rower for another and not completing the paperwork may seem like it is at the minor end of rule breaches, there is another unseen human cost to these decisions. He feels most for the boys whose novice seasons were effectively ruined by being substituted out of boats.

"When kids have bad experiences in sport, it sticks with them," he says.