ST THOMAS’ NATIONALS TRIUMPH A LANDMARK MOMENT FOR YOUTH RUGBY LEAGUE
The euphoria surrounding St Thomas of Canterbury College’s historic New Zealand Secondary Schools Tournament triumph on Sunday is still fresh.
From an epic 12-6 victory over renowned rugby league powerhouse St Paul’s College in the final at Auckland’s Bruce Pulman Park, to emotional post-match celebrations and a stirring haka at Christchurch Airport upon their return home, it’s been a whirlwind.
“It was pretty surreal, but it’s starting to sink in a bit now,” St Thomas’ coach – and the school’s assistant principal – Andrew Auimatagi says.
“It’s awesome to think that 10 years ago we were runners-up in the development grade, so to come away with the title this year is pretty special.”
Auimatagi is no stranger to success on the rugby league paddock, enjoying several watershed victories as a player and a coach for both Linwood Keas and Canterbury Bulls.
But he says despite his St Thomas’ players’ tender years, they have a grasp of how significant becoming the first school from outside Auckland to win the NZSST in 23 years is.
“For the older boys, like our captains Noah Harmer Campbell and Jason Salalilo, they understand how big it is.
“They’ve been up there before and they’ve grown up seeing teams go away for tournaments, understanding how important it is for us as a school that we compete up there.
“Those guys will savour this and I think some of the younger players will take a lot of belief away. Hopefully they’ve inspired some of the other younger ones in the school to follow in their footsteps.”
St Thomas’ carved a dominant path to the NZSST decider, defeating Kelston Boys’ 26-6, Mt Albert Grammar 32-0 and St Paul’s 14-6 in their pool games, before overwhelming Southern Cross 30-6 in the semis.
While racking up points was no issue, the team’s commitment without the ball underpinned their success throughout the competition – and particularly in a tense final, where they built a 10-6 halftime lead with a penalty goal the only addition to the scoreboard in the second stanza.
“In the lead-up to the tournament, we knew we had enough attack in our game,” Auimatagi explains.
“We really prioritised defence and it showed in that final, just the connection the boys had and the willingness to work hard for each other.
“They’re a resilient bunch and it was an outstanding defensive display right across the tournament, only four tries conceded across five games – that was probably the most pleasing part for me. I had no concerns around their attack, I knew that would come pretty natural to the boys.”
St Thomas’ outstanding collective performances garnered individual recognition for nine players who were selected the New Zealand Secondary Schools Boys squad.
“We were stoked with nine in the New Zealand Secondary Schools team, I felt a couple of other boys were probably in the mix as well,” Auimatagi says.
“I thought our halfback, Eli Kakoi, was outstanding all tournament steering the boys around with his kicking game – he’ll have an opportunity coming up at the zonal tournament to make the New Zealand clubs side.
“All the boys that were named thoroughly deserve it and I’m sure they’ll put their best foot forward when they have that representative game around Labour Weekend.”
The capture of the national title has been a lengthy work in progress for St Thomas’, where a top-quality program has been moulded over an extended period and has produced consistently improving results for the schools rugby league and rugby union teams.
“We’ve definitely had a developing league program in the school over the last few years that coincides with our rugby program evolving,” Auimatagi reveals.
“Looking at the success of our first XV and second XV, which works in a partnership with league, that’s been a big factor, the evolution of our rugby codes program.
“And the quality of coaching in our school in rugby and league is another big factor – the people leading the programs, it’s been awesome.”
Auimatagi is confident St Thomas’ momentous win is a stepping stone to ongoing growth in schools rugby league in Canterbury – a microcosm of the positivity and excitement around all levels of the game throughout New Zealand.
“I grew up in the time of the Aranui academy when they were having real success, I remember watching them win in 2000 at the (Addington Show Grounds), so this is a really special time for league.
“I know right across New Zealand there’s a lot of buzz around the game. We’re hoping that continues for many more years to come, and that more secondary schools (from Canterbury) get to compete at this tournament.
“We’ve been really impressed by the work CRL have done to lift the profile in the schools. Getting the Monday night secondary schools competition up and running again is a huge boost for the game.”
As the St Thomas’ team and coaching group deservedly revel in their accomplishments, the local rugby league community is also in celebration mode in the wake of a Canterbury school’s drought-breaking efforts.
“It’s a massive achievement,” CRL Director of Football Jamie Lester says.
“They’ve been getting closer to the top Auckland schools over recent years, but to actually get the job done in the final over a school of St Paul’s’ stature is huge. It’s a testament to their coaching staff, particularly Andrew Auimatagi, who has been working towards this for a number of years.
“Leading into the tournament I was quietly confident that this could be their year. They are a great bunch of boys that love their rugby league. What’s really exciting about it is that I don’t think this will be a one-off. Next year will become even harder, but I don’t think they are content with winning one.”
Echoing Auimatagi’s sentiments, Lester is confident St Thomas’ NZSST win will serve as another launching pad for the code’s growth at youth level in our region.
“It’s a really exciting time for youth rugby league in Canterbury,” he enthuses.
“We have some wonderful coaches involved in the youth space, our South Island rep teams are full of Cantabrians and will go well at Nationals, and we had 16 schools involved in rugby league this year.
“I’m confident we will add to the three Canterbury schools that went to Nationals this year. Perhaps we can bring back some more silverware.”
2023 NZRL National Secondary Schools Boys Squad
- Sio Kali – St. Paul’s College
- Maretino Kaloudau – St. Thomas of Canterbury College
- Chelden Hayward – St. Thomas of Canterbury College
- Jackson Stewart – St. Thomas of Canterbury College
- Malakai Cama – Rotorua Boys’ High School
- Quiann Feterika-Mafoe – St. Paul’s College
- Meihana Pauling – St. Thomas of Canterbury College
- Malachi Filipo – St. Paul’s College
- Noah Harmer-Campbell – St. Thomas of Canterbury College
- Jason Salalilo – St. Thomas of Canterbury College
- Tepatasi Laumalili – De La Salle College
- Mikaele Ilaiu – Rotorua Boys’ High School
- Junior Sikuvea – De La Salle College
- Sosaia Latu – Otahuhu College
- Kalani Peyroux-Donaldson – De La Salle College
- Jeriko Filipi-Talisau – St. Paul’s College
- Zeke Faga-Ieti – St Thomas of Canterbury College
- Ezekiel Paulo – St. Thomas of Canterbury College
- Lennox Tuiloma – St. Thomas of Canterbury College