21 Mar 2024

Rowing officials are examining a possible rule change to stop ‘year 14s’ returning to race at the Maadi Regatta

7:54 am on 21 March 2024

Rowing officials are considering a rule change that would bring an end to the small, but controversial bracket of 'year 14' athletes returning to row in the Maadi Regatta.

The practice, whereby age-eligible students return after their final year of school to compete at the prestigious event, has long been a source of tension in the sport.

While the practice is not widespread, there are concerns about a small number of schools that allegedly encourage students to return to school as a year 14 just to row at the nationals in March.

Critics say it points to a "win-at-all-costs" mentality that has pervaded secondary schools rowing, and question what benefit there is for the rower.

One Christchurch coach raises a particularly egregious case a few years back involving a student who rowed four years with a North Island high school, winning numerous national titles. After his final year of high school, in which he was head boy, he returned as a year 14 student for another school, in another town.

RNZ has confirmed the details of the coach's claims through RowIT - a database of rowing results and statistics - but has elected not to name the student involved or the school.

A proposal put forward by senior rowing officials would bring a stop to these types of occurrences.

The proposed rule change

The proposal, which was first raised at last year's New Zealand Secondary Schools Rowing Association (NZSSRA) AGM and was heartily debated again at this year's meeting on the eve of the Maadi Regatta in Twizel, suggests a change to the classification system for schools rowing, from an age-based system to a year-level system.

Under the proposal, rather than events being grouped by age (U15, U16, U17, U18) it would switch to school year level (year 10, year 11, year 12, year 13).

According to the AGM minutes, among the rationale for doing so is to "stop the inclusion of age eligible students returning to school only to compete at Maadi".

Tony O'Connor is a double Olympian representing Ireland and part of the Chrust's College rowing team.

Tony O'Connor, a rowing coach at Christ's College Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

It's not the first time rule changes have been mooted.

In 2022, Christ's College coach Tony O'Connor was among a handful of Christchurch coaches who wrote to Rowing NZ, School Sport and Sport NZ to express their concerns about the controversial practice.

The group suggested a rule change that would restrict the number of Maadi Regattas an athlete can compete in to four. But thus far, there has been little appetite for change.

O'Connor, who has been particularly outspoken on the practice for a number of years, says it is an issue of fairness.

Rowing is unique in that it is a late development sport. Most young people don't pick up an oar until they reach high school, meaning everyone starts from scratch at the same time.

"The issue I have with that is these kids have had an extra year of training," O'Connor says.

"And in an endurance sport like rowing, that's a huge advantage if you've done five years, rather than four years.

"We see very few schools employ that practice of bringing back year 14s. I can count them on one hand, but all it takes is one to do it, and it hugely bolsters that particular crew and they win races. It's inevitable."

O'Connor says "there are no valid educational reasons" for bringing students back for year 14.

"It says to me winning is more important to them than the good of the kids."

The case for year 14s

Susan Hassall, the long-serving principal of Hamilton Boys' High School (HBHS), disagrees.

HBHS has a year 14 student competing at this year's Maadi Cup. Hassall says his reasons for returning to school are to complete academic requirements before he can take up a college scholarship in the US. Part of the conditions for the student's acceptance at university were that he has a second language, and three years of social sciences on his academic record.

"Our philosophy as a school on returning to school students is that it's an equity issue. Every student who's under 18 has the right to participate in school sport," says Hassall.

"We don't enroll students to row, I feel very strongly that it's unethical to enroll students or to encourage students to come to your school just for a sport. And it frustrates me that other schools do that."

Hassall says she personally interviews every student that wants to return for year 14 to ensure their reasons for doing so are genuine.

Veronica Wall, who is now a member of the Rowing NZ high performance team, competed at the Maadi Regatta as a year 14 student with Ashburton College in 2018 before taking up a scholarship at the prestigious Yale University.

Wall says it wasn't her preference to return to school after completing year 13, but with aspirations of making New Zealand age-group teams, the Maadi Regatta was considered her best option to get in front of national selectors.

She says she copped a lot of flak from rival schools for returning.

"Some of the comments on social media were borderline bullying," she says, adding she heard of threats from some parents of getting lawyers involved.

Justin Wall pictured at the 2024 Meridian South Island Champs in January.

Justin Wall, pictured officiating at this year's South Island secondary schools rowing regatta Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Wall's father Justin, a veteran coach and official, stood up in support of the proposal to change the age classification at last year's AGM.

While he doesn't agree with all changes in the proposal, put forward by another South Island stalwart, John O'Connor (no relation to Tony), Justin Wall says it is time for a big conversation in the sport.

He says the age-based system favours those with "lucky birthdays", with some year 11 students with three years of training under their belts still eligible to race in the Under-15 division, pitting them against rowers completely new to the sport.

The gulf in experience and training age can lead to significant margins in competition, which, officials point out, can lead young athletes to decide they're not cut out for the sport.

The "year 14 issue" is more vexed, Wall says.

"I think a lot of it is a case-by-case thing, and has to be put into context of what the year 14 person is doing. The selection process for getting a trial for under 19s is the outcome of racing at the secondary school champs, so some of those year 14s are there because they want to go get a trial for juniors.

"Some of them are back at school because they are waiting to take up scholarships in America in August. So they're not all there just for the convenience of the school."

Rowing NZ's Mark Weatherall says a working group will be established this winter to weigh up some of the proposals. The panel will put forward rule changes to be voted on at the 2025 AGM.

"There are different ideas and we need to explore those before we put forward anything for a vote," he says.

"Ultimately, it will come back to the schools, because they own the association. As such, our role is to provide leadership and strong rationale for change. But the reality is that they will decide."