AUCKLAND 1A TOUGHEST OF THE TOUGH
The 1A Championship will again be intense, relentless and full of surprises. CAMPBELL BURNES reports.
Auckland Grammar and St Kentigern College are the two favourites in the notoriously tough 1A competition.
The UC Championship and Super 8 may have quite different ideas, but the reality is the Auckland 1A competition is, indubitably, week-in, week-out, the toughest First XV competition in New Zealand.
At least 10, if not 11, of the 12 1A sides are competitive every week. There are other outstanding First XVs from around the country – Hamilton Boys’ High, Scots College and Christchurch Boys’ High would head the list from 2014 – but the deepest well of schools rugby talent is to be found within the 12 schools that make up the 1A.
Having said that, given the parity in the competition, it may surprise some to know that St Kentigern and Auckland Grammar have contested the last three finals.
It may also surprise to read that the chances of the same two protagonists again locking horns in the 2015 decider are fairly high.
As ever, however, there are another six schools, at least, with valid claims of reaching the coveted semifinals.
St Peter’s were only a dropped goal away from making the final last year, and built much of their play around hooker Romero Tagi, halfback Lisati Milo-Harris and goalkicking fullback Jordan Trainor. That trio has left, but now led by loose forward Taina Fox-Matamua, younger brother of Auckland loosie Nepia Fox-Matamua, and coached by Mark Wilson, St Peter’s will be well prepared and well organised.
With around 12 players returning from 2014, they will fancy their chances of again reaching the semis, though Wilson was stressing performance rather than outcome goals. Luteru Tolai and Aleks Dabek complete a tenacious loose trio, while the midfield will be solid, highlighted by Darren Kellett junior at centre. Harry Plummer moves in from the wing to first-five.
Otahuhu College were the wildcard of 2014,
tipping over St Kentigern, their first 1A defeat in yonks, and placing fifth. But the going will be tougher for Otahuhu, which has lost several senior players, including halfback Marius Tonu’u. Tangaroa, so tough to beat in 2013, slipped to 10th, but will surely be competitive, especially at home.
Kelston, Sanix champions as recently as 2012, will be desperate to bounce back from ninth in 2014, and will look to a slick set of backs, led by Sebastian Visinia and TJ Vaega, with a couple of leaguies thrown in, to lead it back to the promised land.
King’s, sixth in 2014, have again recruited astutely from outside the region, so watch for threequarter Bailyn Sullivan out of Napier Boys’ High, said to be one of the best backs in the Super 8 competition. Former Blues and Chiefs conditioner Wally Rifle will have King’s dangerously fit.
De La Salle, always competitive, will be anxious to rise up the table from eighth, and have 10 returning from their 2014 squad of 25. Coach Andrew Va’a will draw the best out of his group.
The first salvoes will be fired in late April’s promotion-relegation series, where Onehunga and Papatoetoe seek to maintain their 1A status, holding off the claims of the 2014 1B finalists, Dilworth and Aorere.
MAGS coach Geoff Moon has assembled a powerful-looking squad, but he knows how cut-throat the 1A can be.
“If you are only five per cent off the mark, you could lose. To me, Auckland Grammar are the benchmark in terms of their record over more than 100 years... but the south Auckland teams are always physical and a test for central Auckland teams.
“Other teams are clinical, so you have to try and match what they do,” says Moon.
There are no less than five south Auckland sides in the 1A, including private school King’s.
As ever, there is plenty of extra silverware up for grabs in several key clashes, such as the Fitzpatrick-Kirkpatrick Cup, for Sacred Heart-King’s contests, not to mention the Hibernian Shield, for the top Catholic 1A school. Many of the games carry that traditional flavour which makes them so appealing, visually and viscerally.
Having said all that, this preview should be approached with a degree of caution, because as Auckland Grammar coach Dave Askew says, you cannot go in with any assumptions in the 1A.
Other teams are clinical, so you have to try and match what they do...’ GEOFF MOON
VETERAN Sesimani Tupou lines up for his fifth 1A season.
FEELS GOOD AGS loved their revenge victory in last year’s final.
POWER PLAY Lona Halaholo brings size, skill and experience to the MAGS’ No 8 position.