Auckland’s Mount Albert Grammar school are New Zealand’s National First XV champions for the third time. They have claimed the Top Four Championship after beating Hurricanes regional winners Hastings Boys High 14-13 in the title match.
Played at the Rugby Institute at Palmerston North’s Massey University on Sunday, it is the pinnacle event for college/high school sides. Unfortunately the weather didn’t co-operate for the showpiece, with heavy rain falling, making handling difficult. That didn’t stop the two sides delivering a gripping and thrilling finale to the season.
The Top Four Boys Final
Mount Albert Grammar School (MAGS) were first on the board, winning a penalty inside three minutes. It was duly converted that into points, by MAGS’ goalkicking hooker Oliver Shepherd. Hastings replied 10 minutes later through Denny Toala’s boot. Grammar fullback Niven Longopoa inexplicably failed to call for a mark, when catching a ball inside his own 22 metre zone. He was then penalized rightly for not releasing the ball, when swamped by the Hastings chasers.
However moments later, Hastings fortunes took a turn for the worse when prop and captain Kianu Kereru-Symes was forced from the field, with what appeared to be a head knock. Already without one influential cog, in halfback Folau Fakatava, Kereru-Symes’ departure proved significant. MAGS took immediate advantage, when a series of pick-and-goes culminated in openside Isaiah Papali’i barging over.
Hastings looked for a reply, but MAGS defence was stubborn. Despite the efforts of Lincoln McClutchie (above) normally a first-five, filling in at halfback, and Toala, the sides went to the break with the Blues regional winners leading 8-3.
Mount Albert started the second half in the same vein as the first, with Shepherd kicking a second penalty. Toala replied minutes later, but only after prop Alex Vuki dropped the ball in space, after some nice work by McClutchie. MAGS were soon able to translate their dominance at scrums (another result of the injury to Kereru-Symes) into general play and forced Hastings onto the backfoot. That pressure was exacerbated when wing Trent Hape was yellow-carded. From there, a scything break by Longopoa was only just cut down by Hastings’ Deven Flanders.
And while that danger was cleared, Hastings conceded another penalty soon after that. Shepherd kicked for his third of the day, to make it 14-6.
Eight points down, Hastings threw everything at it but were repelled by the stern ‘blue and gold wall’ in front of them. Perhaps in hindsight, they may regret turning down kickable penalty shots in search of a try. They did cross in the last minute, through Jeriah Mau which Toala converted, but it wasn’t enough and MAGS lifted the trophy.
Mount Albert successful for third title
The two sides met after contrasting semi-final routes on Friday. Mount Albert blitzed South Island winners Southland Boys High 41-0. Scoring seven tries, the southerners missed a massive 36 tackles to hand MAGS their berth. On the opposite side, Hastings overcame Super Eight rivals Hamilton Boys High 18-10, with the victory only being secured in the dying moments.
Hastings, so strong all year, became the eighth Top Four side to suffer its only loss of the season in the final. For Hastings, McClutchie and hooker Jacob Devery were their standout players. In the champion side, prop Michael Palmer and lock Waimana Reidlinger-Kapa joined Papali’i in laying the foundations for Mount Albert.
Both schools can expect to see players named in the New Zealand Schools and Barbarians sides in coming days. Meanwhile, in the minor playoff, Hamilton would also prove too strong for Southland winning 36-10.
In the Co-educational schools division, Manawatu’s Feilding High beat Auckland’s Aorere College 25-5. That win allowed Fielding to also claim their third title, following their 2009 and 2014 successes.
Feilding attacked the Blues regional winners willingness to run the ball back, by playing a territorial game plan. They then hassled Aorere into errors, building a strong 19-0 half time lead. Made through the boot of Kody Edwards and a try to centre Josiah Maraku. Aorere did get on the board, when blindside Penisoni Fineanganofo crossed.
Both girls sides then played fierce second half, with a further penalty to Edwards and a drop goal by talented fullback Vilimoni Koroi sealing the title result.
Feilding made the final, after beating Waikato school St Peter’s 20-6 in their semi-final on Friday, overturning an earlier loss in competition during the season. Aorere saw off South Island winners Burnside High from Christchurch 32-13 in the other semi.
St Peter’s would claim third place, beating Burnside 37-10 in the playoff match.
For the first time in its five year history, the Girls championship was played at the same city as the two Boys titles. A new name was etched onto the trophy as Invercargill’s Southland Girls High defeated Wellington debutantes St Mary’s College 46-29.
Southland dominated their opponents, blasting out to a 22-0 lead after 20 minutes. Centre Alena Saili notching a hat-trick by halftime. Shell-shocked, St Mary’s did cross before halftime but were hampered by losing skipper Monica Tagoai to a yellow-card. Then influential playmaker Cheyenne Copeland was taken by injury, soon after the halftime resumption.
As well as Saili’s try, her midfield partner Amy Duplessis and captain Kendall Buckingham would both also score doubles. The latter’s first through an unselfish play by the centre, that epitomizes the sides fair play. At 36-7, the game was ‘as good as over’ but St Mary’s crossed four times in the late going. to narrow the final margin [46-29].
Girls rugby performing terrifically
Southland had beaten Blues regional winners Kaipara College 43-24, to make the final. Meanwhile St Mary’s–after beating 2012 & ’13 national winners Feilding High in their Hurricanes region final–upset 2014 & ’15 winners Hamilton Girls 22-17 in the other semi-final.
Kaipara; also Top Four debutante, won the playoff match against Hamilton 10-7 to leave with their heads high.
All sides competing have done their schools proud. No matter the outcome, the 12 teams should celebrate the accomplishment. As will New Zealand Rugby, who have devoted resources to make this a premier tournament. Broadcast on the Rugby Channel, the nationwide coverage says much for the state of First XV rugby.
Scott MacLean is an active referee with the Wellington Rugby Referee’s Association and writes for Last Word On Sport predominantly from the ‘match officials’ viewpoint.