The passion around New Zealand’s biggest schools’ sports event draws crowds from across the country for one of the last true remaining battles of North vs South

There goes Eric Murray. Blond hair and mo, black Rowing New Zealand polo shirt, jean shorts, boat shoes and, very probably, an Olympic gold medal in his pocket.

It is saturatingly wet at Lake Karapiro, a day for ponchos and gumboots, but Eric is strolling pretty nonchalantly through the crowds at the Aon Maadi Cup. Wet is nothing to a guy who has been here, done that on this lake and every lake on the planet that matters.

He is just one face among the 2200 secondary school rowers and thousands of parents, volunteers and fans at New Zealand’s biggest schools’ sports event. The event’s legend says it is the biggest such event in the Southern Hemisphere – that old “world famous in New Zealand” cringe – but no one seems to know how that accolade was established. You’d imagine there’d be a football tournament in Brazil or somewhere that might compare.

Murray and his gold medallist mate Hamish Bond have been at the event talking to various school squads and appearing for their personal commercial partners. Eric in the raw, before a bunch of schoolboys, is peerless. Simple, funny, something memorable for each of them to take away and apply to their races over this six-day extravaganza. He casually pulls out his gold medal from the jean shorts and poses endlessly for selfies.

Despite all his international senior success, he clearly still feels the deep passion that surrounds the Maadi Cup. He didn’t win the big one, but his Pukekohe High School crew went from “not finishing last” in their first race at the regatta in 1997 to winning an Under 17 quad race in 1999.

Maadi is a singular experience. This week, as ever, it brings together schools from across the country. On the face of it they are a roll call of the traditional: the “elite” institutions from each town. And while the fields for the big finals races scheduled for Friday and Saturday reflect that old rowing dominance, participating schools at the overall regatta are a mash up of private, integrated and state, co-ed and single sex, low socio and highest wealth.

The Aon Maadi Cup, named for the Second World War camp in Egypt near which Kiwis rowed on the Nile against other allied troops, is the prize for the glamour boys’ final – the Under 18 eight. But it has come to absorb the entire regatta. The New Zealand Secondary Schools Rowing Championships are now just known as “Maadi”.

The top girls’ prize, the Levin 75th Jubilee Cup for the Under 18 eight, has a less storied history. When the regatta was held at Lake Horowhenua in 1981, the Levin council turned 75 and the mayor donated a cup. Still the Jubilee Cup is incredibly coveted and contested.

One of the strongest feelings at Maadi is one that has disappeared from other areas of New Zealand in recent decades. It is the battle between North and South. The old North Island vs South Island rivalry which professional sport and homogenised television coverage has diluted elsewhere.

Eric Murray has been making appearances to speak to school rowing squads around the country, Photo: Tim Murphy 

All season the two groups of power schools compete only among themselves (the difficulties of moving truckloads of rowing boats, oars, coach boats and rowers across the Cook Strait being all too much to contemplate).

They eye each other warily on rowing’s excellent Rowit website, looking for times and places at the regattas on Lake Karapiro and Lake Ruataniwha, but knowing the differences in conditions, like the heavier water of Ruataniwha, make predictions difficult.

The annual Maadi Cup now alternates between those two lakes. For the boys’ glamour event, the North Island schools have had no real trouble going south and winning but the South Island’s finest are finding Karapiro a fortress: not since 1999 has a South Island school taken the Maadi Cup home from Cambridge. The Northerners have triumphed near Twizel seven times in that period.

Girls have proved more adaptable to conditions. Southern schools have won regularly at Karapiro and vice versa in the Jubilee Cup.

This year’s fields set up an inter-island showdown for the ages. Or for this century, where the South Island schools thirsting for Karapiro success are concerned.

For the boys, there are four Auckland schools, three from Christchurch and one, ominous local crew from Hamilton Boys High School. Hammy Boys, which is a rowing equivalent of the All Blacks in terms of rowing excellence and winning achievement in the past five seasons, lost its three-time consecutive Maadi winning streak last year at Ruataniwha to Christ’s College.

Christ’s is back as defending champion, now on Hamilton’s water. So is St Andrew’s, a crew whose performances have been inspiring positive reviews from rowing heads in the north, and Christchurch Boys’ High School.

Westlake, St Kent’s, Sacred Heart College and Auckland Grammar represent Auckland’s chances. Grammar is the only Auckland school to win the Maadi Cup, in 2011, in the past 20 years. Sacred Heart, which rowed and won silver in the first Maadi Cup in 1947, have won it just once, 50 years ago.

In the girls’ Jubilee Cup race, Diocesan from Auckland are reigning champs but face four Canterbury schools, including the powerhouses of Rangi Ruru (who have twice won it four times in a row in the past two decades, and St Margaret’s). A looming threat to all of them could be the co-ed St Peter’s, Cambridge.

Beyond the two big races, there is the Star Trophy for overall best school over the 600 races and 52 events. It has been won by Waikato schools for the past six years, home and away. And now they’re at home.

By Saturday at 5pm (the Jubilee Cup runs at 4.30pm and the Maadi Cup at 4.50pm), 20 rowers will have the chance to walk around future Maadis like the great Eric Murray – with a gold medal in their pockets.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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