When Jack Weeding started high school in Hobart, he was short, skinny and in sporting limbo, and then he was introduced to the concept of a scrum half.
Seven years later, that shy 12-year-old is helping a new generation of Tasmanians on their rugby journey through The Hutchins School, which has been a staunch outpost for the game in the Apple Isle for more than 60 years.
“I fell in love with it from the first moment I picked up a ball - I’d never felt anything like it before, says Weeding, who was captain of rugby when he graduated from Hutchins in 2018 and has returned this year as a teacher’s aide and coach.
“It was something completely different that I’d never got a taste for in any other sport, and I loved the mateship that came with it, I think you’re a lot closer to the guys on your team than in any other sport.
“In year seven I was one of the smallest guys going around, but there was still a position for me, and then as I grew and got older I could change around and try other roles.”
The weedy Weeding grew into a skillful and fleet-footed playmaker, debuted in Tasmania’s senior competition with the school’s affiliated club Hobart Lions at the age of 16, and sites rugby as something of a life coach on the often complex path through senior school to adulthood.
“Rugby really boosted my confidence, helped me get to know a lot of guys in a welcoming and fun environment,” says the 19-year-old, who will study teaching at the University of Tasmania (UTAS) in 2020.
“I became more outgoing, and rugby is really where I first took on leadership.
“In my second year of rugby I found myself vice captaining a team, learning from guys around me who were more experienced, and from there I was able to take on more leadership roles.
“Obviously No.10 is a big leadership role on the field, but it’s also really helped my confidence with school and in other areas of life in taking on leadership whereas, before rugby, I probably wouldn’t have done that.”
The Hutchins School, which overlooks picturesque Sandy Bay to the east, and is overlooked by the often brooding Mt Wellington to the west, has been turning boys into men since 1846.
Sport has always been used as a major tool in this process, but rugby wasn’t introduced until 1958 by english teacher David Ryder-Turner, who coached an under 16s team in matches against Cosgrove and Hobart High School.
There has been a rugby program, in some form or another, in every one of the 60 seasons since - a challenge which was more easily met in Tasmanian rugby’s halcyon days of the 1960s and 70s than the currently complex sporting landscape.
Former chair of the Tasmanian Rugby Union’s (TRU) junior committee Vic Doust volunteers as director of rugby at Hutchins, and is motivated by the positive role he has seen rugby play in the personal development of hundreds of boys, including his own.
“It was really through my sons falling in love with the sport - I remember the first day after training he came into the kitchen and was virtually dancing on the hardwood floor with his boots still on, jumping out of his skin,” Doust says of eldest son Mason, now a 21-year-old studying and playing at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra.
“He said; ‘Mum, Dad, I’ve found my sport’, and he was only in year seven then.
“From there we started to grow the rugby and got more involved, I decided to pull back on contract work and travel to be more involved with the school and my boys’ upbringing.
“Initially, I just helped with coaching, but I saw there was a lot of work required in administration in the school and as chair of the state committee to try and grow competition for our teams at Hutchins.”
And therein lies the main problem for Doust and his head coach Shaun Killian, a South African health and physical education teacher who arrived in Hutchins in 2016 after 15 years in NSW.
“There are a lot of challenges, but our main problem in Tassie is participation, there just isn’t enough kids playing in schools or clubs,” says Doust.
“I could see that in years to come we may not have rugby, and sometimes the standard of coaching just isn’t there, so getting good people in is crucial, and Shaun was good enough to put his hand up for the job.”
The Australian Rules football juggernaut is an almost irresistible force in Tasmania, and soccer is also growing exponentially, but the competition against these sports doesn’t stop at the school gates.
“Our director of sport at Hutchins has 30 different sports that he has to manage because we offer so many choices, just like a lot of other schools,” says Doust.
“So if a student doesn’t want to try rugby, he can do everything from skeet shooting, sailing academy, rowing, motorsport, mountaineering..…
“If you consider there’s maybe 75 students coming in from year six into our under 14s, it’s a challenge to try and get enough boys attracted to the game.
“Once they get into it - the physicality of it, the honour, respect and courage required to play - they love it, but you’ve got to get them to come and give it a go.”
Weeding’s presence in the junior school will help, and Killian also established an external Rugby Union Academy in 2019, aimed at educating and developing Tasmanian players and coaches at all ages and levels of the game.
“I’ve spoken to UTAS and the TRU about trying to build the academy with them, trying to get them on board, because I just want to encourage as many people as possible,” says Killian.
“We’ve got a lot of speed, agility and strength and conditioning training happening at the moment, there’ll be some holiday programs, and then we’ll get into pre season and build up to the tour in April.”
The Rugby Union Academy Devils - an under 18s squad comprised mainly of Hutchins students with a sprinkling from Hobart clubs and a few ring ins from NSW - will embark on the ten-day tour around New Zealand’s North Island.
“We didn’t quite have enough from Hutchins alone for the school to sponsor it, so we’re going in under the banner of Shaun’s Rugby Academy and expanding it out to others in Tasmania,” says Doust.
“It has a very strong cultural exchange focus, there are two indigenous boys in the squad, and we’ve asked a local indigenous artists to come up with a design for our playing jersey.”
This idea was inspired by the popular indigenous jersey worn by the Wallabies, most recently against Uruguay in the Rugby World Cup, which full back Kurtley Beale had a hand in designing.
The smaller devil tracks signify the animal travelling and the fern element illustrates the link to New Zealand culture (Māori koru), which are also ubiquitous in the Tasmanian highlands.
In the absence of weekly competition games, Doust has to innovate to find playing opportunities for the Hutchins boys, but tours and tournaments still give the students access to some of the best aspects of rugby culture.
“The way Mr Doust organises and plans all the rugby trips has made a massive impact on my enjoyment of the sport and exposure to the community that surrounds it,” says Martyn Szoke, who graduated from Hutchins in 2019.
“You’re usually billeted out with the family of your opposite number, and they will look after you, show you the sights, bring you to games and you basically become part of the family.
“I’ve stayed with the same family in Victoria three times now and my now good mate has stayed with me and my family down here in Tasmania, too.
“The friendship we’ve built through that is really solid, even though we only really see each other once a year through rugby.
“I know that, if I ever go up to Melbourne, I now have an open door and familiar faces welcoming me.”
The annual trip Szoke references is to the Victorian Schools Rugby Sevens in April, where he was a part of this year’s victorious under 18s Hutchins side, while the under 16s finished third out of 14 teams.
Hutchins also played home-and-away friendlies against Melbourne’s Scotch College in 2019, part of a strong relationship they’re developing with Victorian Schools, and further on-field opportunities came with state squads.
Tasmania’s under 18s took out July’s inaugural Southern States Championships in Canberra, defeating South Australia 24-0 in the final, and No.8 Nick Allardyce, lock Hugo Blomfield and centre Blaine Doust (Vic’s youngest son) are the subject of further interest from the Brumbies Academy.
“For so long they’ve been a bit lost down here, left to our own devices, but that interest shows the boys there’s actually a pathway,” says Killian, who was the team’s head coach.
“It’s difficult for our boys down here because they don’t get much rugby, but we went up there and had a really good crack.
“We said to the boys; ‘We’re not here to make up the numbers’, and they listened, learned and went out and executed.
“I was particularly pleased for guys like Martyn (Szoke) and a few other boys who have put so much time into rugby, but haven’t got much out of it in terms of results.
“They’ve built a lot of friendships and that type of thing, but just haven’t had that much actual rugby, so to be a part of that was a great achievement for them.”
Tasmania also sent Hutchins heavy squads to the National Youth Sevens Cup on the Sunshine Coast at the end of November, and their students dominate the TRU’s term-four Friday-night November 7s Series, but regular competition against other Tasmanian schools or clubs remains the ultimate aim.
“If we had five teams in a round-robin format, that would be the ultimate goal, and then you’ve got a full (school) term of rugby you can prepare for,” says Doust.
“Then at either end of that they’ve got Sevens tournaments, so what we’re looking for is that term of rugby, but we need greater participation and the key challenge is getting the clubs and other schools to kick start their juniors.”
Former Wallaby Adam Coleman’s high school New Town look the most likely, the only all-boys government high school in Tasmania, where self-confessed rugby nut Dave Kilpatrick is principal.
“Ideally the competition would be school based, because that rivalry could be very powerful,” says Doust.
“Particularly with New Town because they love to have a crack at us; they like to think of us as the toffee-nosed rich kids, even if that’s far from the truth, but that rivalry is what I really want to try and foster.”
Another potential opponent is St Virgil’s, a Catholic boys school, where Hutchins’ Anglican roots could produce another enticing rivalry - and the director of sport’s son is already a member of the Hutchins under 16s rugby team.
“We’ve been asking him to try and get that rugby teacher in charge to organise a program, because every St Virgil boy wants to have a crack at every Hutchins boy, and vice versa,” says Doust, who is also considering taking non students into the rugby program in more of a club set-up.
“I’ve been petitioning St Virgil’s for a number of years and in the future we see that there’s some interest, which is prime time, because they’re about to add year 11 and 12 in 2020.”
Former TRU development officer and Classic Wallaby Luke Burgess did some solid groundwork in many schools throughout Hobart and Launceston up until the end of 2018, but rugby’s permanent presence ultimately comes down to key people within the institution continuing to push hard after the initial introduction.
“We’re trying to find that teacher at every school who is passionate about rugby, and say to them; ‘you have to drive it’,” Killian says.
“Myself and Vic and Smithy (teacher Brett Smith), we work really hard, and that’s why we have the numbers.
“If you get someone at a school or a club who really drives it, and is prepared to work hard, it can definitely grow.”
The longevity of the rugby program at Hutchins has also spawned a direct pathway to the Tasmanian club competition, where Hobart Lions ply their trade.
Formerly known as Hutchins Old Boys, Shaun Killian guided the team to semi-final appearances in 2017-18, before a leaner season in 2019.
“Building that link between Hutchins School and Hutchins Lions has been really important,” says Killian.
“Getting the students to keep playing rugby and enjoying themselves long into the future is the aim, so some of the youngsters have been approached to test themselves at that higher level.”
Jack Weeding is this pathway’s pin-up boy, starting most games for the Lions in 2019 while working at Hutchins, and coaching the school’s under 13s and 14s squads.
“I developed my rugby so much in that year playing with them while I was still at school (aged 16), and it was a tough season this year, but we still managed to have a lot of fun,” says Weeding.
“But the coaching has been so awesome - watching the kids build and grow their confidence throughout the season - and also their ability.
“Seeing where they started from and where they are now, after a relatively short season, is amazing considering most of them hadn’t even picked up a rugby ball before this year.”
A couple of the Lions’ seniors also help coach at the TRU’s Friday-night 7s Series and president Jonathon Cook, a 16-year veteran at the club, reckons around 30 per cent of current players are former Hutchins students.
“We’ve been really fortunate that Vic Doust has a passion for junior rugby, and then Shaun Killian came along, and he just lives and breathes rugby,” says Cook.
“As a result he’s made that infectious here in the boys at the school, and we have two guys in the club now whose rugby journey started under Shaun Killian.
“Without someone at the school who is passionate about rugby, our club suffers, so when you’ve got people as passionate as Shaun and as driven as Vic, our club thrives - and that’s been in evidence when we’ve made finals the last two seasons.”
The TRU has had a strong response to its Little Devils initiative, a fun Friday-night program for boys and girls aged six to 12, and Doust dreams of a day he doesn’t have to coax juniors from other sports into his program once they reach Hutchins.
“That needs to be well organised, there needs to be a junior program for under 6s and 7s, getting those kids running around and throwing the ball sideways instead of kicking it through four posts,” he says.
“We just need to get them doing that, see how much fun it is, and then a grow the program right through to seniors which feeds the clubs.”
The school’s creed of ‘building good men who act with kindness, integrity, compassion, humility and courage’ fits uncannily within the values of rugby and, with a recent push to increase overseas enrolments, Doust wants Hutchins to be known internationally as a rugby school.
“The pitch will be lining up the school’s philosophy about being a global citizen and about being good men, and showing them that’s what rugby’s about,” he says.
“The focus of our strategy to get international students into the school is around Hong Kong and South-East Asia, so that’s a great opportunity, because rugby is growing so much in those regions off Japan’s success at the World Cup.
“It’s an opportunity for the school to embrace rugby more than it does, because a lot of the emphasis is on AFL and rowing.”
The rest of the world might not seem that accessible when you’re attending high school in Hobart, but Doust used former Wallaby David Pocock’s infamous social media post from the 2018 Ireland Series against Australia to illustrate the global opportunities rugby can offer.
On the 2005 Australian Schoolboys tour of UK and Ireland, Pocock was billeted out with current Ireland scrum half Conor Murray in Limerick, and the pair rekindled their friendship in the dressing room after the Sydney Test 13 years later.
“We sent that around the school to say to the boys; ‘This is what it’s all about’,” Doust says.
“It’s a world sport, we’re global citizens, and playing AFL you’ve got a focus of Australia only, and soccer is global, but the culture in rugby is unique.
“It’s about being a good man, particularly here as a boys’ school, but we want them to understand that greater meaning around the game.
“All the boys know is Tassie, but we’re putting in their minds the fact that rugby is a great vehicle for you to go and see the world - you can grab your jersey and walk into any rugby club in the world and say; ‘I want a game’.
“They’ll give you a place to stay, a meal, something to drink and probably a job.
“That’s a very powerful thing.”
This article was originally published on RUGBY.com.au.