We welcomed a very special group of visitors to town last month. Forty students from Los Angeles toured New Zealand for three weeks as part of an American rugby exchange program sponsored by the Inner City Education Foundation (ICEF), on an itinerary that included stops in Auckland, Raglan, Rotorua, Turangi, Wellington, Kaikoura, and Christchurch.

ICEF group on tour in New Zealand.

ICEF students on tour in New Zealand.

ICEF operates a network of 15 charter schools in the Crenshaw Corridor area of South Los Angeles. Established to prepare under-served students to attend and succeed at top American universities, the ICEF schools provide high-quality, tuition-free primary, intermediate, and secondary education in economically disadvantaged areas of the city. (This year marks the 20th anniversary of the passage of the California Charter Schools Act, and there are currently more than 980 charter schools educating more than 412,000 students in the State.)

ICEF has offered rugby as part of its athletic program for 10 years, and founder and head coach Stuart Krohn has introduced the sport to thousands of Angeleno students during that time. Discipline, leadership, teamwork, and other character-building elements inherent in team play are at the heart of ICEF’s efforts to produce university-ready secondary school graduates. A key component of the program is international travel, fully financed by student and faculty fundraising.  Past trips have included Hong Kong, South Africa, and the UK.

The point, of course, is to broaden horizons, teach life skills, and create a culture of achievement. And the program has worked brilliantly. ICEF rugby alumni are currently studying at universities across the U.S., including Ivy League bastions such as Dartmouth College and the University of Pennsylvania as well as other elite schools such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

ICEF girls rugby teams in action.

ICEF rugger breaks through.

The first stop on this year’s trip was Tahiti. The boys and girls enjoyed local food and culture, did a bit of sightseeing, and played matches with local Tahitian teams. From what I hear – and from the smiles evident during the telling – that was quite an exciting way to start the overseas adventure.

And things just kept getting better. Upon deplaning at Auckland Airport the group bumped into English rugby star James Haskell, who currently plays Super 15 Rugby for the Highlanders. Being sport scholars, the Angelenos recognized Jim immediately. A true gentleman, he graciously took time to chat with ICEF boys team captain Asa Garrett on tape (in the middle of a duty free shop):

The group drove from Auckland to the Kokiri Center in Raglan where they were welcomed with a traditional powhiri and interviewed by the Waikato Times. Our good friend John Mataira, Consul General of New Zealand in Los Angeles, arranged for the students to be hosted by his family on local marae (both in Raglan and in Turangi later in the trip).

The next day the group spent time with local students from Raglan Area School and learned a haka . The boys then played their first rugby game against the Melville High School U-16 team, with the Melvillites winning 27-25 on a missed conversion after a late try by the Angelenos. Coach Krohn remarked that his students were deeply impressed with the warm welcome they received in Raglan. It was his players’ first experience being on a marae and learning about Maori culture.

ICEF boys rugby team in competition.

ICEF ruggers in action.

After a day of rest and sightseeing the group traveled to Rotorua and visited the New Zealand Sports Academy. There they participated in an excellent rugby training session with the Academy’s director, Jim Love, and spoke with a reporter from the Rotorua Daily Post.

There was a vigorous welcome haka, and the Angelenos reciprocated with traditional American step dancing, a complex performance art that fuses African American folk traditions with popular culture. The ICEF boys are considering incorporating the haka into their pre-game rituals when they get back to the U.S., and I hope that the Academy students make use of their newly developed stepping skills.

The ICEF group then proceeded on to Turangi, where they were received by students from the Maori Performing Arts Academy (MPA) of Tongariro High School. The Angelenos stayed for three days at the school marae, and both the boys and girls played matches against combined rugby squads from the high school. The visitors scored their first victories of the tour.

On the last night in Turangi the ICEF and MPA students enjoyed an evening of cultural exchange, together performing step, poi, haka, and waiata. They also enjoyed a traditional puia hangi, cooked in a steam pit at the Tokaanu-Waihi geothermal field.

A brief stop in Wellington included watching the Hurricanes play the Cheetahs at Westpac Stadium, followed by transit to Christchurch, where the boys and girls stayed with host families throughout the city.  They visited the Orana Wildlife Sanctuary, and then got down to business. The boys’ team played a match against St. Bedes College, besting their hosts 29-24.  The girls’ team played Burnside High School, winning 15-10.

ICEF boys rugby team.

ICEF boys rugby team.

While in Canterbury the Angelenos participated in the annual Christchurch Boys’ High School Rugby Club Rugby Festival. The ICEF girls distinguished themselves during the Festival with hard-fought games against Canterbury and Burnside that reportedly impressed their hosts.

In a promising display of what the future holds for American rugby, the ICEF boys went undefeated in the Festival, scoring dramatic victories against Waimea U16 (20-5), Linwood U16 (47-5), Christchurch Boys High School (33-15), and St. Bedes in a tough rematch (17-16). Cameron Griffin – one of the stand-out players on the ICEF boys’ team – won the U16 most valuable player award in the tournament.

John Mataira, NZ Consul General in LA with the ICEF boys and girls rugby teams at Westpac stadium.

At Westpac Stadium for an afternoon of rugby.

The trip was a life-changing experience for these outstanding boys and girls from the United States. I’m delighted that their parents, teachers, and coaches made such a smart, strategic commitment to their growth and development.

I was also impressed with how well the ICEF students represented their home city and country. More than rising rugby players, the visiting Angelenos were outstanding Ambassadors for America. I look forward to seeing them when I’m next back home, so that I can continue to make the case for careers in diplomacy and other team sports.