SLUGGING IT OUT
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.