Head down to the Paradice Ice Skating rink in the Auckland suburb of Avondale on a Thursday night and you’ll see teams of students pushing ‘rocks’ over a ‘hog-line’ to have them land as close to the ‘button’ as possible.
For those not familiar with the lingo, curling is staking its claim as a popular winter sport amongst Auckland’s secondary school students.
Although a long running sport in the far south, the sport only entered the Auckland secondary school sports scene in 2002.
The New Zealand Curling Association decided to select a junior team to the World Junior B championships in Denmark and it was felt the competition should be open to all.
Thanks to the determination of Birkenhead College PE teacher, Liz Matthews, who encouraged some of her students to take up the sport and introduced it as an option for others through a push at the Coca-Cola Sports Expo, Auckland held its first secondary school curling competition that year.
A year later, the first official Auckland Secondary School’s Curling championships were held with just eight teams competing. However, the opportunity to have a go at a less well known sport, combined with it’s growing popularity has seen the curling competition grow to include a full 18 teams this year.
Matthews attributes the sport’s growing popularity to the fact it is a non-contact sport and it doesn’t require a lot of strength.
“It’s all about balance and timing,” says Matthews. “Curling is a very strategic game – sometimes it’s called chess on ice – you have to be able to read the ice and watch what the other team are doing, see where they release the stone, and calculate where to place your stone to get the best advantage.
“It is also a sport in which you can have some immediate success, although it does take time to learn all the strategies,” she says.
As a relatively new secondary school sport, the sport is not without its problems. It still doesn’t have full sanctioning as an official secondary school sport from College Sport as, with just a single two hour time slot on the ice each week, only eight teams of four students can play at a time. This leaves it well short of the minimum requirements of 300 regular competitors, or 25 per cent of College Sport member schools.
A further hindrance to the sport, according to Matthews, is the lack of dedicated curling ice in the city. “Ice skating leaves a lot of tracks and grooves in the ice, which means the ice ideally needs to be levelled, pebbled and nipped before the students play,” says Matthews. “With just 15 minutes between the end of the ice skating practice and the start of the curling competition, we don’t have the time to fully prepare the ice.”
The lack of dedicated curling ice and lack of opportunity to practice not-withstanding, Auckland secondary school curling teams are competitive at a national level – to the extent that a team from the South Island is yet to win the girls New Zealand Secondary School Curling championship. Competition is relatively even in the boys’ competition, with each island winning four titles apiece.
“There are great opportunities for students competing in the Auckland competition to be selected for national teams,” says Matthews.
The sport is expected to go from strength to strength in Auckland over the coming years as school sports co-ordinators become aware of the sports’ growing popularity, especially amongst those students who haven’t excelled at traditional school sports.
And, as Matthews says, “the fact the sport is a bit different from the norm is also contributing to its popularity”.