- By Adam Julian
- PHOTOS By Andy McArthur
Wins today at the National Top 4 championships in Palmerston North for Southland Boys’ High School (boys) and Manukura (girls).
In a monumental surprise, Southland Boys’ High School became the first South Island school since Christchurch Boys’ High School in 2006 to claim National honours, and the Moascar Cup for the first time, with a gobsmacking 32-29 triumph over Blues and North Harbour champions Westlake Boys’ High School.
The Loan Star on the Corner of Leet and Dee Street in Invercargill is a shrine to Southland sporting legends. These kids belong on the wall beside Burt Munro and Brian McKechnie. In nine previous trips to the Top Four Southland had only made the final once and they were smashed 25-7 by St Peter’s College, Auckland in 1987.
Excluding the four occasions two South Island schools have attended the National Top Four and played each other, South Island schools have only won 15 of their 72 matches at the tournament since its inception in 1982. The South Island competitor hadn’t won a single match before this weekend since 2013. The last time Southland competed in 2017, they suffered a record 49-0 whitewash against Hamilton Boys’ High School who converted just two of their nine tries.
Remarkably Southland lost twice to fierce rivals Otago Boys’ High School in the Otago Schools Championship this year before extracting revenge in the decider and then surprising a considerably bigger Christchurch Boys’ High School 29-28 in the South Island final on August 19 in Invercargill.
In Friday’s semi-final, Southland doggedly resisted Hurricanes champions Palmerston North Boys’ High School 20-19.
Without their captain Jason ‘Baby Cabbage’ Rutledge, Southland found themselves 19-5 down against the freewheeling Blues champions but found a way to glory.
Southland started vigorously enough with two passages of attack lasting longer than a dozen phases. Initially, at least, Westlake was stubbornly resolute and then ruthlessly clinical.
Centre and captain James Cameron scored the first try, thundering 25m after hitting a shallow pass with zeal and palming aside two hapless tacklers. Moments later fullback Isaac Murray-Macgregor hauled in a grubber that dribbled perilously close to the sideline to score in the corner.
Southland responded through Amaziah Mitchell. The second-five bulldozed through congestion and made an angled purist to the paint.
The threat of Murray-Macgregor loomed large and a dazzling offload he delivered behind his back to winger Reimana Saunderson Rurawhe will no doubt ignite Instagram. Did the share audacity of that moment, however, became an issue later for Westlake?
Southland struck a crucial blow before the interval with a rugged lineout drive and turned with a significant breeze.
Southland No 8 Justin Shaw was a tower of strength. He embarked on a weaving 50m run early in the second half and then crashed over several phases later.
Saunderson-Rurawhe replied for Westlake who were otherwise becoming disturbingly clumsy. A botched clearance was caught by Southland centre Kiseki Fifita who slipped his marker near the 22 to dot down beside the corner flag. A sideline conversion by Year 11 fullback Jimmy Taylor levelled the score 24-24. Taylor’s kick was only an entrée before deluxe.
Southland had all the momentum and when blindside Fraser Wilson hurdled over a ruck after courageous industry from lock Thomas Spain, they led for the first time.
With 15 minutes remaining Southland had a penalty advantage 45m out from the Westlake line. Taylor retreated, stood stationary, received the ball on the chest and unleashed an ambitious drop kick attempt. It was a work of art, straight down the middle she sailed, and Southland led 32-24. In Stags country it was as good as James Wilson’s drop goal to win the Ranfurly Shield off Canterbury in 2011.
Cameron scored 22 tries this season, including at least a single try in 13 consecutive games. He repeated his first half surge to cut the deficit to three.
Any thoughts Southland would panic were buried with composed cradling of possession; the kind of grind best learned in the freezing mud and slush of the “City of Water and Light.”
An epic season for Southland. In total they won 15 of 17 games and outscored opponents 702-222. In pre-season they conquered King’s College (44-17) and Auckland Grammar School (18-17).
Southland BHS Top Four Squad: Ethan Brock, Josh Cairns, Preston Evans, Kiseki Fifita, Jayton Fisher, T.J. Gallen, Thomas Jennings, Matt Johnson, Presley McHugh, Phoenix McKay, Amaziah Mitchell, Jak Morton, Mika Muliaina, Rico Muliaina, Hoani Nikora-Wilson, Jordon O’Connell, Lachie Riley, Gregor Rutledge (c), Justin Shaw, Thomas Spain, Noah Sutton, Jimmy Taylor, Fraser Wilson.
A Dropped Goal in a National Final.
There have only been eight drop goals in National Top Four finals. Richard Meehan was the first to slot a ‘Droopy’ (he kicked two) in the 1989 final when Kelston Boys’ High School beat Wesley College 22-19.
The last before this weekend was landed by Bryn Gatland (ironically playing for North Harbour these days) in the 2013 final won 12-10 Hamilton Boys’ High School over St Kentigern College. St Kent’s 52-game unbeaten run was ended.
Taylor joins All Black Colin Slade as the only South Island player to kick a dropped goal in the final. Slade nailed one for Christchurch Boys’ High School in a 22-22 draw with Wesley College in 2004. Christchurch went on to claim outright honours in 2005 and 2006. From 2004 to 2006 Christchurch enjoyed a span of 60 successive games unbeaten.
2023 Top Four Scoring Summary
- Semi: Southland BHS: 20 (Kiseki Fifita, Phoenix McKay tries; Jimmy Taylor 2 con, 2 pen) Palmerston North BHS: 19 (Ryder Crosswell 2, Ollie Barham tries; Jamie Viljoen con) HT: 14-12
- Semi: Westlake BHS: 43 (Issac Murray-McGregor 2, Matereti Hoyt 2, JD Van Der Westhuizen, Jay Cameron, Tyler Pulini tries; Murray-McGregor 4 con) Tauranga Boys’ College: 40 (Aidan Spratley 2, Ashton Paintin, Ryan Dunn, Fauuma Kupita, Noah Johnstone, Aaron Gibbs 5 con) HT: 19-21
- 3 v 4: Palmerston North BHS: 31 (Tom Illston-Park 2, Ollie Barham, Tayne Harvey, Jaziah Symons tries; Jamie Viljoen 3 con) Tauranga BC: 24 (Aidan Spratley, Lachlan Stevens, Ryan Dunn, Charlie Sinton tries; Aaron Gibbs 2 con) HT: 14-10
- Final: Southland BHS: 32 (Amaziah Mitchell, Hoani Nikora-Wilson, Justin Shaw, Kiseki Fifita, Fraser Wilson tries; Jimmy Taylor 2 con, dg) Westlake Boys’ High School: 29 (Reimana Saunderson Rurawhe 2, James Cameron 2, Issac Murray-McGregor tries; Murray McGregor 2 con) HT: 10-19
Girls Hine Pounamu Trophy
Manukura won the Hine Pounamu Trophy with a resounding 31-0 thrashing of four-time previous winners Hamilton Girls’ High School in the final.
Manukura shared the title with Christchurch Girls’ High School last year and are undoubtedly a slick outfit and are coached by former Black Ferns halfback Kristina Sue and Black Ferns Sevens representative Rihanna Ferris they come equipped with a Mental Skills advisor and video analyst.
Manukura scored five tries and led 17-0 at halftime in a lopsided decider.
The most eye-catching tries were to halfback Maia Davis who strode gracefully 50m on the wing and hooker Lashaye Blake who resembled a steamroller in her 30m charge.
The handling and creativity of the Manukura backs was excellent. Second five Manaia Blake scored twice in the semis and her brute force was ideal beside the guile of centre Mia Sutherland.
The Manukura forwards were direct and abrasive with No.8 Te Maia Sweetman an imposing force.
Tragically Manakura only played four official fixtures in 2023 and a couple of tournaments under varying rules. Moves are afoot to develop a New Zealand Secondary Schools Girls team. Who they might play remains a mystery.
Christchurch Girls’ High School beat Auckland’s Mount Albert Grammar School in the other match on Sunday. Christchurch led 10-0 at halftime courtesy of two unconverted tries and held off a voracious attack by MAGS just before halftime and again early in the second half. CGHS broke out and scored their third try, which proved the match-winner. MAGS finally crossed but couldn’t do so again. The game was called off a few minutes early owing to an injury to a MAGS player.
- Semi: Manukura: 36, Christchurch GHS: 12
- Semi: Hamilton GHS: 28, Mount Albert Grammar School: 5
- 3 v 4: Christchurch GHS: 15 v MAGS: 5
- Final: Manukura: 31 v Hamilton GHS: 0