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Some school leavers to watch in 2023

Above: St Pat’s Town rumble towards the line for their winning try in last year’s semi-final against Wellington College. Town lost to St Pat’s Silverstream in the following week’s final. Many players on both sides will be making their club rugby debuts this year in the Premier and Colts grades. Photo: Andy McArthur.

The Wellington club rugby competition consistently produces new talent. From Joe Karam and Grant Batty in the early 1970s to Ardie Savea and more recently Peter Lakai and Riley Higgins, people can look back and say ‘I was there’ when they first played senior rugby.

As always, some players leave school and head to other regions such as Auckland and Otago for work or study or to join their rugby academies. But there are always plenty of promising school leavers making their debuts in Wellington club rugby in the early rounds of the season, either in the Colts or Premier Reserve competitions or in the Premier Swindale Shield.

Here are some rookie names to keep an eye on in 2023.

Please note that this is by no means a definitive list of names. A look at this corresponding article in recent years reveals some players mentioned haven’t kicked on as perhaps anticipated and others have been mentioned in passing only but have quickly become key players for their clubs and in higher teams.

Similarly, for this article and next week’s annual ‘Gains & Losses’ one, we have approached all 14 Premier clubs, but at the time of publishing not every club has responded.

Starting this article with last year’s College Sport Wellington Rugby Player of the Year, Senio Sanele.

Sanele was part of St Pat’s Silverstream’s all-action, powerful front row, who won the Wellington title and drew 17-17 with Napier BHS in the Hurricanes final. He also made last year’s NZ Barbarians Schools squad. He is currently in Taupo with the Hurricanes U20s squad with a handful of other players noted further down this article.

Senio Sanele celebrates scoring an early try for St Pat’s Silverstream in their encounter against New Plymouth Boys’ High School last year. Photo: Andy McArthur.

Sanele is one of several players joining the Upper Hutt Rams this year, injecting youth and excitement into their Premiers who last won the Swindale Shield in 2005 when these players were not long out of the cradle.

Other noted 2022 First XV players joining the Rams this year from Silverstream include blockbusting midfielder Emmanuel Solomona, Travis Polglase and Toby Mallon.

Toby Mellon (front) and Emmanuel Solomona (second) lead St Pat’s Silverstream on to Arena Manawatu at the start of their drawn Hurricanes final with Napier BHS last year.

Not only does Solomona have power and skill to regularly bust the line, he defends well and kicks goals. Rumours of a switch to the side of the scrum too, so watch this space.

Polglase is a hard-working lock and Mellon plays his rugby at hooker in a similar vein. Mellon was also Silverstream’s captain last year so has valuable leadership qualities as well.

In addition, the Rams have several other regular Premiership First XV players in their ranks this year. Not all will play Premiers, some will play in their re-formed Colts side who could be challenging for silverware in 2023.

One such player is New Zealand’s fastest teenager, Tyrone Trego. The Hutt International Boys’ School school leaver won the NZSS 100m title last December, so needless to say give him space and he’s off.

Tyrone Trego – extreme pace. Photo: T-Paul Gale.

St Pat’s Town fullback Zion Fuiava joins the Rams, as does Wellington College duo, halfback Devon Sopoaga and lock Abraham Fletcher.

Another player joining the Rams soon will be recent Scottish school leaver Ben Gibson. Gibson joins the Rams from Glasgow on exchange, and it is understood his club will be touring New Zealand this year.

Along with Sanele, there are two other current Wellington contracted players currently with the Hurricanes U20s squad in Taupo.

Jack O’Brien is a strapping midfielder with a strong skillset out of St John’s College, Hamilton, and joins Marist St Pat’s.

Matolu Petaia is a lock or No. 8 who joins Tawa out of Hastings Boys’ High School. Petaia is a Wellington junior and formerly went to Rongotai College and prior to that Porirua College before heading to Hastings for his final year in 2022 and was in the Hawke’s Bay U18s as well last season (see below).

Matolu Petaia off the back of the scrum for the Hawke’s Bay U18s last year. Photo: Chainsaw Photos.

Two young players not in the Hurricanes U20s but straight out of school and set for big years at their clubs are Stanley Solomon and Carlos Hihi.

Carlos Hihi playing for the Wellington U20s last month against Manawatu. Photo: Mike Lewis Pictures.

Solomon needs no introduction to Wellington rugby readers, having been Wellington College’s playmaker for the past two years and their captain last season.

Solomon is explosive with searing pace, but also a smart rugby brain and vision and skills to match. He is understood to be joining Petone club this year, after initially linking with the Wellington Axemen in the off-season.

Hihi is a similar-styled player and comes to Wellington after captaining the Gisborne Boys’ High School First XV last year. He is joining Poneke, and with the loss to Australia of playmaker Pakai Turia (see gains and losses article next week), he could get plenty of gametime this year and will fit right in with Poneke.

Solomon kicks for goal against St Pat’s Town in last year’s Premiership semi-final. Photo: Andy McArthur. 

Likewise, Sam Meo, last year’s Wellington College fullback and Solomon’s teammate. Meo joins Poneke, who’s backs coach Toby Robson played with his father Tristan in the 1998 Jubilee Cup winning Wests Roosters side.

Rongotai College’s Moli Taulogo also joins Poneke and could receive plenty of time in the Premiers line-up if as not a leading Colts player. Taulogo is a fullback/outside back and scored plenty of tries in his school career.

Across the road at Evans Bay Park, Marist St Pat’s welcome several prominent school leavers to their ranks this season.

As well as Jack O’Brien (mentioned above), wing/fullback Francis Mettrick is no stranger to Evans Bay, having been in the St Pat’s Town First for the past three seasons. Mettrick was also recently in the Wellington U20s side.

Then year 12 fullback Francis Mettrick finishes off this popular home try for St Pat’s Town against Wellington in their traditional in 2021. 

Other players making the transition from St Pat’s Town to MSP include Elysium Tolova’a-Stanley, Ben Higgs, Nathan Carr and Dallas Natoli. Lock Loto Va joins the club out of Wellington College.

Through the cutting, Oriental-Rongotai will have several First XV players from local schools wearing Magpies colours in 2023.

One of their number, St Pat’s Town prop Salesa Seumanufagai, is currently playing in the Hurricanes U20s tournament in Taupo with the Moana Pasifika U20s team.

Loosehead prop Salesa Seumanufagai scores the try here for St Pat’s in their traditional against Wellington College in May 2022. He joins Ories this year, alongside one of his brothers Ronaldo who is returning to Wellington from Southland. Another brother, Herman, is playing rugby league in Australia. 

Others include wing Josh Semu (Wellington College), Braedyn Togi, Pharrel Gray, Ensesi Tuilaepa (all Rongotai College) and Nehemiah Akeripa (Taita College).

Old Boys University has a strong tradition of bringing in school leavers from around the country, mostly owing to them being the university club.

Tana Maene-Lokeni is a loose forward out of Scots College, although he could be seen at lock where he has been playing in pre-season matches.

Halfback Thoma Takeuchi was a member of Wellington College First XV and was in the Wellington U16s in 2021. Openside flanker Nathanial Barry is out of Te Taumata College and the son of third generation All Black Liam. Both are likely to be part of the Colts Green side this year.

Jackson Wright is now two years out of school, but the former St Bede’s midfielder is also worthy of a mention in this space. He was a Crusaders U20 player last year and a recent Wellington U20 player.

At the head of the Hutt Valley, last year’s Senior Swindale Shield and Colts John E. Kelly Cup champions Petone have welcomed a group of recent school leavers, mostly from St Pat’s Silverstream.

These players include Ben Kershaw, Connor Tuifao, Lennox Easthope and Connor Vlas.

Bailee Laurenson-Tupa’i also links up with Petone from Wellington College via injury in 2022.

Hutt Old Boys Marist welcome a clutch of school leavers from the St Bernard’s College First XV, who are all likely to be Colts players this year. Among them are Dom Ernst Aleki Manuele and Kelly Tangiwai-Scott.

Wainuiomata have selected lock Ma’a Tauaneai in their Premier squad, out of St Bernard’s College.

As always, a handful of First XV players join the rugby league code, with St Pat’s Town flanker Jordan Chapman now at the Canberra Raiders as one example.

Another notable player, midfield Ietitaia Campbell is returning to school at Scots College, being young for his age.

The Swindale Shield competition starts next Saturday, 1 April. All other grades are expected to be up and running in the following fortnight.

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