It’s 5 pm on a Friday afternoon in Victoria. Boys and girls are playing outside with laughter roaring across all corners of the field.
These kids aren’t impersonating their favourite Aussie footy stars nor playing the other game of football, still bathing in the Matilda’s glow.
They’re playing rugby.
Rugby at a public school in Melbourne, better known as ‘the home of AFL’.
Melbourne - the most competitive sports city in the world.
For a game that has deep, at-times paralysing ties to the elite private school system, in Melbourne, rugby has found its home in the public schools.
Schools across Melbourne have been experiencing a ‘rugby boom’ thanks to innovating programs using rugby as a catalyst for improved academic engagement from students with strong family ties to traditional rugby-loving Pacific Island nations such as Samoa, Fiji and Tonga.
Melton Secondary College Head Rugby Coach, Matthew McMullen, says the rugby inspired programs, led by Academy Movement, have made a dramatic impact on his students' attitudes towards school, attendance and behaviour.
“Even though it's only in its second year, we've seen a significant growth in our students’
attitude towards school, their attendance, and their behaviour in class, which has then led to academic success,” said McMullen.
“We're using rugby as a rocket to try and motivate them to improve that attendance even more, to increase their capabilities, so they can achieve their goals for the future
“The program has been fantastic in facilitating up-to-date curriculums that are engaging the students with the content, but also giving them opportunities to go to clinics such as Pro Physio Plus where they get hands-on experience with physiotherapists and high performance clubs, such as the Melbourne Rebels, where kids can go and see their facilities at AAMI Park and watch the players train and go through their routine.
“Through our partnership with Academy Movement, we've seen a significant growth in the students' academic success and their engagement in class and it's untapped.”
Academy Movement is one of its kind in Victoria. A non-for-profit organisation that provides state schools with education and support services to start and maintain highly successful and engaging sports academies in schools.
The program’s impact isn’t just limited to improved academics; Academy Movement has also developed elite homegrown rugby talent such as Melbourne Rebels’ contracted players Lebron Naea, Leafi Talataina, Hope Kareta, Harmony Vatau, Utumalefata To'omalatai and former star, Trevor Hosea, who now plays in Japan.
Founder and Director, Jimmy Orange, is a Kiwi expat and former public school teacher, and knows firsthand the impact sports can have on students, particularly rugby.
Orange believes he’s tapped into a winning model, redefining the way high school talent is developed and retained in the game - from school, to club and for some, professional rugby.
“Rugby’s obviously our game in New Zealand, it's what AFL is here in Victoria. The reason it changes lives for New Zealanders is because there’s such a strong school programme. The dream of a lot of young kids when they start high school is to make that First XV and play against the other schools and play with their mates. Rugby was always the reward there,” said Orange.
“So, launching the Academy Movement, I knew the impact it could have in the public school system in Victoria. What hadn't really been done before was creating it as a subject where we could do it in class time and get a ball in the kids hands all the time, giving them a reason to show up and then your afterschool training comes afterwards.
“We've taken a lot of what works from New Zealand and how successful it is there and brought it over here. Giving kids an extra reason or a reward to show up to school and engage and contribute. For some of us in New Zealand it was like that, rugby was the reason to show up.”
For a State with a large Pasifika community and one with such an enormous appetite for rugby, Orange’s vision and determination has been well supported across the public school space.
Melton Secondary College’s Sport Enhancement Coordinator, Tim Condon, says the results speak for themselves, with his students resonating with the rugby-driven curriculum, developing skills and behaviours that will set them up on and off the field for years to come.
“At our school we have a large number of Pasifika students and we understand rugby is a keen interest of theirs, so by using rugby as a catalyst, we’ve been able to keep kids in class and assist them in developing elite behaviours that could help them with rugby and winning Super Rugby contracts, but also whatever academic or career field they wish to pursue,” said Condon.
“The ability to impact our student’s behaviours longterm and the impact this will have on their work pathways, their family and their community is really pleasing for everyone at our school.”
One of the many students positively impacted by the Academy is Melton Secondary College Student, Jayda Fagalilo.
After entering the Academy with little knowledge about the game, Fagalilo credited the program for forging a newfound love for rugby and strengthening her connection to the community surrounding it.
“I was an observer of rugby more than a player. I was really new to the game but had been watching from afar, coming in with a family that has a passion for rugby,’’ said Fagalilo.
“Since this program and the sport has come into our school, it’s been such a beautiful thing to learn about the sport, its values, its diversity and with such a close community. I feel like school's given me a lot of connection towards the sport, and it's given me such a boost to learn more about it.
“It’s taught me a lot about myself. Rugby has really helped me improve my persistence, through a lot of challenges. It's helped me keep focused on both my schoolwork, my community and my surroundings. It's helped me improve all my values from my success to my teamwork, my respect, my responsibility and my ambition.
“It's helped me realise that there's a purpose behind what I'm doing, and it's given me a lot of motivation towards what I want to achieve and the work and discipline that is required to get there.”
Melton Rugby Club Junior Coordinator and Team Manager, Donna Arahanga, agreed with Fagalele’s endorsement, highlighting the impact made on her son’s behaviour.
“He started when they first opened here, in Year 9. He was one of the first students and since the program is also designed academically, not just on rugby alone, he's improved so much academically which is something I’m really proud of,” said Arahanga.
The impact of bringing rugby out to Victoria’s state schools and putting it in front of engaged students doesn’t just end in the classroom. The program has created a strong pathway for students to then progress through to Victoria’s grassroots clubs, strengthening the overall health of club rugby in the most competitive sports state in Australia.
From the student pool Jimmy Orange taught at Fountain Gate, there’s been a steady increase in male and female players taking their newfound love to club rugby with approximately 60% of the Academy now playing grassroots across Victoria.
Since the Academy launched at Melton Secondary College in 2022, the Melton Warriors Rugby Club has also seen a massive growth in participation, with the girls juniors team experiencing a dramatic rise from 6 to 22 players in just 18 months.
With over 125 students set to play rugby at Melton Secondary College in 2024, Arahanga believes the future is bright for grassroots rugby in the community.
“The Academy has been massive for the growth of grassroots rugby. If I compare it to New Zealand, it's everywhere in the schools over there. I truly believe if they make it mainstream here success will follow too - you've got so much potential. There's so much talent out there in Victoria. There's so much untapped talent here, so being able to have these resources in the public schools is huge.”
“With all the extra training my son now gets in school, he's been able to make things like rep teams. He's even a representative of the Under 16 Melbourne Rebels, and through his experience at school, he's developed an even bigger passion for the game. Even in Club Rugby, he's excelled just enormously.
“With our youth girls, we’ve also now doubled our numbers in just one year. Last year, we had a few teams of each grade - 18s, 16s and 14s. Since the Academy, we've had an influx of players come through which is just phenomenal and an example of the program’s success and why there needs to be a greater investment by the game in our public schools.”
With a British and Irish Lions Tour fast approaching and home men’s and women’s World Cups in 2027 and 2029, there’s a growing urgency on how Rugby Australia can best maximise the growth of rugby across the country and connect with a new generation of fans.
Mr McMullen believes in order to maximise rugby's growth and ensure the sports longevity and durability, other states need to follow Academy Movement’s blueprint, with greater support needed both from Rugby Australia and local government.
“Previously before coming to Victoria, my experience with rugby union in Australia has been localised or centralised in private or Catholic schools. Public schools haven't had a chance to get into it unless individuals have been offered scholarships to attend a Catholic school and to move away from family.”
“Coming from New South Wales, if we wanted to go anywhere with our rugby, we'd have to take scholarships that were six, five, eight hours away from where I was living. That's Nudgee College, Scott's College in Sydney or Kings College, which being away from your family at such a young age is such a difficult thing to do.
“If the investments and money was put into public schools, that creates more numbers playing the sport. The more numbers playing the sport leads to more viewers watching the sport at home, and then more viewers watching the sport at home leads to more bums on seats in stadiums at these big events.
“The more people who play, the bigger our talent pool, and we need that to compete with other sports such as AFL, soccer, and rugby League. The development path they've taken in the last five years with the public school approach is what works and the rest of Australian rugby needs to follow to get more students and kids involved at a young age.”