The following story was recently published on College Sport Wellington and is being posted here on Club Rugby with permission.
One of the year-in year-out certainties in Wellington secondary school rugby is that St Mary’s College will be very tough to beat. The school has owned the sport from when it first started taking rugby seriously in the mid-2010s.
We caught up with Mark Hurley, the school’s Head of Social Studies who has been the team’s manager for ten years. It seemed right to talk to a history teacher about the rugby dynasty that has emerged at St Mary’s.
Hurley explained that when rugby first came on the scene at the school “it was a bit of a social thing. We started playing when the game was still a 10-a-side format. We moved quickly from winning the Premier B title to finding ourselves playing in the Top 4.”
St Mary’s made their top 4 debut in 2016. They beat Hamilton Girls’ High School to make the final on debut. “I think we were a bit overawed by the experience.” Their opponents, Southland Girls’ High School has been in previous tournaments and were beaten finalists in 2015 (the previous year). The Southerners proved too good winning 46-29.
The lessons learnt from that loss would prove to be invaluable. St Mary’s would again represent the Hurricane’s region at the Top 4 in 2017. St Mary’s were made to battle to make the final, only just securing a 22-17 win over Aucklanders Southern Cross Campus. Their opponents in the final would be a highly regarded Hamilton GHS team who scored a significant 51-12 win over Southland GHS.
“The team were a close bunch they knew each other well. They were gifted athletes. Many played other sports for the school.” This all helped St Mary’s to beat Hamilton GHS 29-12.”
During this era the group also exceled at sevens rugby. This culminated in their winning the Sannix international tournament in Japan, in 2017. “It really hit home for the team when the national anthems were played. It was an incredibly stirring moment”.
“We played a tough Japanese outfit in the final. We got off to a great start. The Japanese team played a disciplined patterned form of rugby. They finished strong. However, our halfback, Cheyne Copeland had an excellent read of the game. She found a gap that she turned into a winning try.” St Mary’s won the final 26-22 over Kokugakuin University Tochigi High School.
“Offering rugby at St Mary’s has provided our students unique opportunities to pursue.” Dhys Faleafaga became a contracted Black Ferns rugby international while still at school. Her contract was presented to her at a school assembly. Mark adds “but I still pushed her to successfully get her NCEA Level 3s. We want our players to be role models. They agree to conditions where attendance at school and correctly wearing uniform are as important as being at practice.”
Many recent old girls have achieved representative honours. This includes Dhys’ older sister Lyric who played for the Black Ferns sevens. Monica Tagoai earned three test caps with the Black Ferns in 2018. Players from the 2017 team have also achieved success in other sports like Renee Savai’inaea who plays netball for the Southern Steel and Ainsleyana Puleiata with the Pulse.
St Mary’s has continued to accumulate winner’s trophy in the Wellington Competition. Tough opposition from Palmerston North school Manukura has halted their access to the Top 4. The Covid years were also a dampener to the programme. “We did our best to offer sport working within the protocols”. The 2021 final was played with no spectators. “The game was livestreamed. I got phone calls enquiring about the crowd noise. I had to explain that the empty stadium was causing an amplifier effect when the bench cheered.”
Hurley sees positive signs with this year’s team. “There’s plenty of spirit there. We train on Mondays. One session was on a day there was no school but everyone still turned up to training.”
There are different challenges with putting together a girl’s rugby programme. “Unlike with boys’ schools this is a new thing, we don’t have the same traditions. As many members of the team play other sports, we can only train once a week. However, we have about twelve players who also play club rugby on Saturdays.”
“You need to have passion to administer sports. There’s lots of challenges. The biggest tends to be fundraising. With St Mary’s success there’s been a lot of travel. This year the New Zealand Rugby Union has proposed a new national tournament in Palmerston North. This is good as St Mary’s need to play more competitive games during the season. However, with this comes new costs.
“There’s a lot of good ideas being discussed to grow girls’ rugby but what we really need is resources. Our teams having access to professional players would also be good. We need to offer more to female players so that they feel valued.”
“We have been fortunate over the years to have good coaches.” This includes Ardie Savea who assisted his friend Tuga Mativa for a couple of years. “The way they instructed players was superb. It made an immediate difference to a group that were mainly new to the game.”
Taking the First XV this year are Shannon Nightingale, Serge Lilo and Tinkah Tolova’a. Helping with the Second XV and Under 15s are David Isaia and Cam McKenize. “They all have daughters on the team. Also supporting us is Black Ferns International Marcelle Parkes. It is good we can offer such experience to our team.”
“With the later start to this year’s Under 15 competition we are combining those players with our 2ndXV so that they have access to rugby, now. Under 15s is important pathway for our girls. We’ve also enjoyed success at junior level with Zak Feaunati and Solomon Sua coaching a winning Condor sevens team in 2020.”
St Mary’s is an urban school based near parliament. “We don’t have a field and we can’t afford Council ground charges, so we have relied on different rugby clubs to grant us access to use their training facilities. This year Petone are helping us and we’re running practices at North Park.”
Although Hurley wants to see St Mary’s continuing to be successful, he encourages other schools to keep growing their girls’ rugby programmes. It’s a sport that offers unique rewards for those involved.