AUCK­LAND 1A TOUGH­EST OF THE TOUGH

The 1A Cham­pi­onship will again be in­tense, re­lent­less and full of sur­prises. CAMP­BELL BURNES re­ports.

NZ Rugby World - First XV - - CON­TENTS -

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.

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