A first XV tri­umph that was heaven-sent

The Timaru Herald - - $ -

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

GETTY IM­AGES

St Pe­ter’s Col­lege cap­tain Niko Jones hoists the cup for the Auck­land sec­ondary schools rugby crown.

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