The Southern Zone Scorpions 15s’ effort to reach the NZRL National Youth Tournament final for the first time last week was a monumental achievement by any measure, but coach Walter Wilson has revealed the full extent of the odds the team overcame to stun the North Island big guns.

The 16-year-old age group in Canterbury has just four teams; from those sides, only 34 were eligible for selection for the NYT 15s team. Wilson and his selection panel picked only eight players from the Canterbury 15s and six from the Canterbury 14s teams.

The remaining six squad members were from the West Coast, which has only a two-team competition in that age bracket.

Wilson said character was just as crucial as ability when it came to selecting the team.

“What these young guys have done is quite an incredible feat considering the limited depth of competitive games,” he lauded.

“We were quite harsh in our selections, we were looking for specific types of players in specific roles.

“We ended up taking three 14-year-olds in the front-row, and if you look at what the competition’s like up there I think a lot of people would’ve looked at us and thought, ‘you’re bloody crazy’, taking them to play against 15-year-olds from Counties, Akarana, Auckland and Wai-Coa – they’re pretty big boys up there.

“We were very specific in the skillsets we were looking for, and the big thing was selecting on attitude. If there any cause for concern about the attitude of a player they ended up not getting selected.

“Put it this way: you couldn’t fault the guys we took.”

The Southern Zone 15s opened their campaign with an impressive 30-18 win over Wai-Coa-Bay, before a gutsy 18-4 loss to Auckland Vulcans on day two.

According to Wilson, that defeat set up their campaign.

“The Vulcans had all of the ball that game, the penalty count was 12-5 against us, we had 30 percent of the football and pretty much all we did was defend,” he said.

“They were lucky to get two cheeky tries from dummy-half that flattered the scoreline but other than those the scoreline could’ve been 6-4 and they had all the football.

“Our boys defended all day against what ended up being the grand final-winning team.

“I said to the boys, ‘if that’s the best they’ve got when we haven’t got the football, you guys are in with a shot’. That scoreline could have ballooned out to 30 or 40 points but our boys didn’t allow it to; I think they were the best defensive team in the competition.”
The Scorpions regrouped with a 46-4 demolition of Northern Swords, which – combined with the Vulcans’ shock loss to Wai-Coa-Bay – saw them finish top of the pool.

The South Islanders parlayed that momentum and confidence into a 22-12 boilover against Counties Manukau Stingrays in the semi-final.

“We played what was probably a complete half for us,” Wilson said.

“They talk about the perfect game and that sort of thing, well that first 25 minutes against Counties was probably our best 25 minutes in the whole comp. And it needed to be, because we were playing against one of the favourites to take the competition out.”

That pitched the Scorpions into a rematch with the Vulcans in the final, but they had fallen behind 10-0 by halftime.

The Scorpions scored 14 unanswered points – with Uriah Tuli and Ethan Faitaua scoring quick back-to-back tries – before the Vulcans snatched the title 16-14 with a late converted try.

“In contrast to the first half against Akarana, (the first half of the final) was probably our worst half of the comp. We didn’t complete our sets, we didn’t play to what got us there. Everything that had got us to the final, we didn’t do any of it in that first 25 minutes.

“The second half message was pretty simple and pretty clear: just get back to what we do well. The boys did that and won (the second half) 14-6, but in the end it wasn’t enough.”

The sting of defeat was soothed somewhat by the naming of four players – props Jaedon Wellington and Felix Faatili, lock Tuli and West Coast back-rower Jack Campbell – as well as coach Wilson, trainer Kevin Te Hau and manager Rachel Te Hau in the Team of the Tournament.

“That was pretty cool, really. For the players, I would’ve loved to see (hooker) Ethan Faitaua get named as well, I thought he had an outstanding tournament. Very unlucky not to get in,” Wilson said.

“Jaedon Wellington is one of the most exciting players coming through the ranks at the moment, alongside a couple of others in our team. Him and Uriah Tuli were absolutely outstanding for us, they were there last year.

“But for Kevin and Rachel, and myself, it was nice to be acknowledged in that way. I’m not sure if that’s been done before where a whole management group from the same side has been named, but that was nice.

“I would’ve far rather had the win, but I can’t look too far past getting acknowledged like that.”

Amid the euphoria, Wilson warned plenty of hard work is required to ensure the Scorpions 15s maintain these high standards at future tournaments, and for the players graduating to the next age group to continue their progress.

“The 15s have really set a platform for what’s required to perform at the nationals. When I first got the role three years ago I said to (Southern Zone Rugby League general manager) Steve Martin, it’s not going to be what we do this year, it’s about what we do with the guys this year that will be playing in three years’ time.

“This year is an absolute result of that. We’ve had some camps that have laid a bit of a platform for what we need to be doing at these tournaments. The key thing is this year we had Jaedon, Uriah, Jack and Tom Campell, Unalato Uasi and Ethan Faitaua who were there last year.

“Having those boys who have had a taste of the tournament is really important for laying the platform for the following year. We’re lucky to have six boys that will do that for us next year, three of them being props. Felix Faatili has already received the (Team of the Tournament) merit jersey at 14 (years old), so it does look exciting for next year.”

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