A first XV triumph that was heaven-sent
say St Peter’s sees itself as a beacon for the way forward in schools rugby.
‘‘I’d like to think so,’’ St Peter’s headmaster James Bentley tells Stuff. ‘‘You get so much satisfaction from seeing a team of your boys who have grown through the school, you galvanise the community because they’ve known these kids growing up and then when you get to a final it means so much.
‘‘Schools that try to short-cut that by bringing in players who aren’t familiar to the community in their last year will lose that aspect.’’
The vast majority of the St Peter’s first XV, including inspirational leader and star player Niko Jones, attended the central Auckland college since either their first intake in year 7 or the second in year 9. There were ‘‘a couple of others’’ who came in year 10 and also their permitted two international players, Chris Halaufia and Apetone Vaka, who arrived (one in 2016, the other 2017) as part of a longestablished placement programme with the Tongan government. As Jones, son of All Blacks great Sir Michael, told Stuff recently: ‘‘We have memories since we were 12 years old together, playing touch, tag, and staying hours after training. Playing around on random fields was how we got skilful and what got us to that place. It’s a journey we’ve been on since we were kids.’’
It showed. When the going got tough, their collective spirit, togetherness and mateship helped the Saints boys get going, all the way a remarkable triple triumph to cap possibly the greatest first XV season in school history.
Here’s how the team’s finish to their storybook season played out: they stunned everybody but themselves in rolling the previously undefeated St Kentigern College 22-21 in the Auckland 1A semifinal, thanks to a last-minute converted try from big loosehead prop Zyon Holo; then won the final 29-28 over King’s College, surviving a massive late assault which saw a rival player drop the ball with the tryline open.
They then went on to defeat Westlake Boys High 19-17 in a grindout Blues region final; won the top four semifinal 8-7 in a ‘‘war of attrition’’ over Hamilton Boys High; and secured just their third national championship with an epic 31-28 victory over Napier Boys High in the final that saw them claw back from a 21-0 deficit.
Five high-stakes matches, every one of ‘em going to the wire, and the Saints winning them all by a combined total of eight points. God on their side? ‘‘I don’t know about that,’’ smiles Bentley. ‘‘But it started to feel a little like it was fated. We had a wonderful team culture, and they were very well coached by Walter Alvarez, our IT manager at school. The belief he instilled in those boys to never say die and the culture of the team was wonderful.
‘‘They fought for each other, and they never doubted themselves. They’re all friends, and they’ve all grown up together.’’
A culmination of a cycle, in other words, which is how Bentley believes first XV rugby should be.
‘‘We knew we had a good team and we dared to dream. But a lot of those boys leave us now, and we will have to bring a new group of players through.
‘‘Our great former coach Eric Kohlhase said when we won our last 1A title in 2000, if everybody plays by the rules all teams can have the opportunity to win this title. I agree with that philosophy.’’
Which is why, emphasises Bentley, that the 10 Auckland schools felt they had to take a stand on St Kentigern who are due to bring in five first XV players recruited from other schools around the country as part of their 2019 intake. ‘‘It has got too extreme,’’ adds the St Peter’s head who says none of the 10 schools involved in the boycott have recruited first XV players from other programmes.
‘‘We are all very reluctant to take boys from other schools who are effectively elite players.
‘‘We got wind of [St Kents’ actions] from our colleagues in regional centres who are very concerned they’re losing their top kids, future leaders of their school, right when it counts.
‘‘That’s not development. That’s a shortcut to glory. It just got too much. A stand needed to be taken.’’
Bentley believes this year’s remarkable run by his team made one thing abundantly clear at St Peter’s.
‘‘Some schools look at their first XVs as marketing tools. That’s not how we see it.
‘‘It’s about enjoyment for the kids, galvanising a community and the wonderful pride we all have in their achievement.’’
Pride that money, scholarships, simply cannot buy. or
St Peter’s College captain Niko Jones hoists the cup for the Auckland secondary schools rugby crown.