NZ Rugby World - First XV - - CON­TENTS -

The usual sus­pects are likely to be slug­ging it out in the UC Cham­pi­onship.

TThe Cru­saders schools com­pe­ti­tion has a new spon­sor, but the rugby will be the same as al­ways – tough, bru­tal and com­pelling. ADAM JU­LIAN re­ports

he pre­mier First XV com­pe­ti­tion in the Cru­saders re­gion has had a change of spon­sor. The Christchurch Press has pulled the pin and the Univer­sity of Can­ter­bury takes over the UC Cham­pi­onship.

De­spite the change in name ex­pect lit­tle change in the peck­ing or­der of Cru­saders First XV rugby.

The peren­nial pow­er­houses of Christchurch Boys’ High School, Nel­son Col­lege, St Bede’s Col­lege and Marl­bor­ough Boys’ High School all ap­pear to be in healthy shape again.

Burn­side High School coach Kevin Hard­ing ex­plains the chal­lenges of be­ing a small school.

“Last year we achieved our best re­sult ever by fin­ish­ing fifth which was sec­ond out of the Christchurch Schools. We learned that with the right train­ing pro­grammes and struc­tures we could cre­ate a level play­ing field.

“We have 13 play­ers re­turn­ing this year and I am con­fi­dent we can com­pete - with­stand­ing in­jures. We have a bare 22 who can play UC Cup ad­e­quately. Boys’ High will have more than 100 boys to choose from.”

Of those re­turn­ing to Burn­side open­side Cam Rus­sell and sec­ond-five Jack Lind­say are worth keep­ing an eye on. De­spite be­ing a Year 11, Rus­sell was one of the best in the com­pe­ti­tion last year. Lind­say scored three tries in the fa­mous win against St Bede’s.

In 2014 Ti­maru Boys’ High School made the semi­fi­nals for the first time since 2008. Coach Shane En­right has de­lib­er­ately planned for in­jures by se­lect­ing a squad of 45 boys who have been train­ing since Novem­ber. In 2016 up to 20 of those play­ers will be el­i­gi­ble for the First XV again.

En­right says: “The big four will be threats as usual be­cause they have tra­di­tion, depth and boys that want to make their school proud. They also have very good coach­ing squads.”

The likely stand­outs for Ti­maru will be Fi­jians Vil­lame Bar­avi and Is­reli Kawa. Both are prod­ucts of Le­lean Me­mo­rial High School which pro­duced the out­stand­ing Su­liasi Vu­ni­valu now with the Mel­bourne Storm. Mid­fielder Zac Saun­ders who scored six tries last year is also highly rated.

The UC Cup is a marathon with 14 roundrobin games played and then semis and fi­nals. The abil­ity to build

depth and at­tract and re­tain tal­ent is vi­tal. This les­son was learned harshly by 2013 cham­pi­ons, Marl­bor­ough. Coach Gray Cor­nelius says: “Early on we lost three key play­ers for the whole sea­son and strug­gled to re­cover. I think we might have been too harsh on our­selves look­ing at the score­board rather than per­for­mance.

“I have learned about squad man­age­ment and the boys have learned that there are chances to step up if they are will­ing to work for it.”

Marl­bor­ough have nine re­turnees and will have some class in the backs. Half­back Trance Poa is an ex­pe­ri­enced cam­paigner while Mitch Smith can cover mul­ti­ple po­si­tions and was the lead­ing points’ scorer last year with 159.

Sam Moli, the brother of New Zealand Un­der 20 prop Atu Moli, is a de­struc­tive hooker in the pack.

St An­drews could be a threat. They have 14 re­turn­ing play­ers and a po­ten­tially po­tent back­line. Tahi Bagely and Ray­mond Nu’u could well be the strong­est mid­field tan­dem in the com­pe­ti­tion while Al­bert Gonerogo is a Fi­jian flyer set to make his pres­ence felt at ei­ther full­back or wing.

Up front prop Har­ri­son Allen and lock Ge­orge Mirfin bring mus­cle and ex­pe­ri­ence. Former Waikato flanker Rod McIn­tosh joins Joe Leota on the coach­ing staff.

In 2012 when Christchurch won the Cham­pi­onship they achieved 50-plus scores six times in 13 games and posted cen­turies against Nay­land and Burn­side. Last year there were no cen­turies achieved and a clear clos­ing of the gap.

De­spite this only one player from a UC Cham­pi­onship school was se­lected for the New Zealand Schools. In the New Zealand Un­der 20’s last year there were eight boys from UC Cham­pi­onship schools, six of whom rep­re­sented ei­ther the New Zealand Schools or the Bar­bar­ians in 2012.

Does this sug­gest that the qual­ity of the com­pe­ti­tion has dropped or was 2014 an aber­ra­tion? Tim Gilk­i­son, the com­mu­nity rugby man­ager for Can­ter­bury says: “There wasn’t the X-Fac­tor play­ers like Damien McKen­zie or Richie Mo’unga in 2014. I think that made the com­pe­ti­tion more even over­all.”

IN THE HUNT St An­drew’s Col­lege hope to be a sur­prise pack­age this year.

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