Coaches Thrilled With NZSST Performances
The two Canterbury schools that competed at last week’s New Zealand Rugby League Secondary Schools tournament in Auckland are reflecting on watershed campaigns in their respective grades.
St Thomas of Canterbury College reached the final four in just its second year in the premier tournament, improving from a 15th-place finish in 2016, while Haeata Community Campus marked its nationals debut with an appearance in the development grade final.
Breezing through the pool stage unbeaten with impressive victories over Mount Albert Grammar, Westlake Boys and Papatoetoe High, St Thomas went down in the semi-final 10-6 to Kelston Boys in golden point.
But that heart-breaking result – followed by a 22-16 loss to traditional heavyweight St Paul’s College in the third-place playoff – did little to diminish St Thomas’ outstanding performance.
“It was a great week for sport at our college in general – our football team also achieved a top-four finish, so for us to make the semis and just miss out was a bit gutting at the time, but when we look back on it, it was pretty special,” St Thomas coach Andrew Auimatagi said.
“The effort and the attitude all week was awesome.
“We achieved our goal of reaching the top four, and probably exceeded a few expectations across New Zealand.”
Auimatagi revealed tweaking the team’s travel plans from previous years played a big role in their success through the pool games.
“We were quite lucky to travel up (to Auckland) the day before, I think that set us up well,” he said.
“In the past it’s always been a bit of a rush to get up there on the Monday, so it allowed us to prep for (Mount Albert Grammar) and have a really good crack at that game.”
The Rockcote Canterbury Bulls coach also believes the shattering extra-time loss to Kelston after leading 6-0 at halftime will prove character-building for the squad.
“The boys were so close, we just needed to be tidier in a few areas in that second half. It was pretty gut-wrenching for the boys to lose that way, but I’m really proud of the performance.
“We’ve got a few younger guys who could return next year and some other boys moving on to bigger and better things at the Warriors and further abroad, so they’ll look back on the tournament with some very fond memories.
“Everyone right across the board put in some really good performances. It did help to have guys like Jordan (Riki), Seth (Tauamiti), Caius (Faatili) and Dom (Fidow-Kele) who have some rep experience, and the tournament is a pretty important thing for those guys.
“The younger guys look to them, and they led very well.
“And it was awesome to see Haeata in their first year, in the new uniform, make the final in the development grade. It was great for both Canterbury teams to make their mark up there.”
Haeata Community Campus bounced back from a convincing first-up loss to Onehunga High to quality for the development semis with pool wins over Papakura High and Francis Douglas Memorial College.
“The first game was a bit of a shellshock to the boys,” Haeata coach Te Wairau said.
“They went out there and competed for the first half, but Onehunga is a strong team, and in the second half they didn’t quite know how to take them.
“After that first game the team started focusing more on defence, it got stronger and stronger, and the smaller players stepped up majorly to defend well.”
Haeata then caused a semi-final upset, beating previously unbeaten Trident High 14-10 in a golden point thriller courtesy of a match-winning try to impressive prop Sua Aiiloilo – who bagged a hat-trick in the win over Papakura – after Trident had levelled the scores in the dying moments of regulation time.
“All of us and our supporters ran onto the field after (Sua) scored,” Wairau beamed.
The tournament ended with a 30-8 defeat in the final at the hands of a talented Marcellin College outfit, with Haeata’s cause not aided by a heavy injury toll heading into the decider.
“I know a couple of their players from the camps I’ve been to, so I knew it was going to be a tough game,” Wairau said.
“But the boys went for it, they tried every way to get past (Marcellin’s) line and they kept on playing their game, which we can build on for nationals next year.”
Coach Te Wairau lauded his team’s attitude throughout the tournament, particularly after their initial defeat, and singled out the defensive displays of captain Antonio Lemalu and hooker Junior Muaimalae, who missed the final through injury, for special praise.
“The boys really wanted it, for pride in the jersey and pride in their school.”