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Some School Leavers to watch in club rugby in 2024

Wellington College players and supporters celebrate winning the Quadrangular Tournament last winter – many players involved in matches like this will be entering the senior club rugby ranks in 2024. 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.

Another theme of 2024 is the high number of last year’s standout First XV players returning for another year (or two) of school, raising the standard of the Premiership competition this season. As well as the players we know about a handful of others we enquired about are still in the collegiate system – but that is for another article.

Here are some rookie names to keep an eye on in 2024.

Please note that this is by no means a definitive list of names. Every club has been contacted for input. 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.

As is tradition with this article the first name on the list is the previous year’s College Sport Wellington Rugby Player of the Year.

That player is Harry Irving (Scots College). Irving is a promising prospect and last year’s captain of the Scots College First XV. Irving can play lock or any loose forward position and is a leading lineout forward. A member of NZ Barbarians U18 and Hurricanes U18 teams in 2023, Irving has recently represented the Wellington and Hurricanes U20 sides and is a current student at Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington and has joined Old Boys University for 2024.

Harry Irving soaring high in last year’s Premiership final, won by his team Scots College.

Next on our list is Jacob Kennedy (Wellington College), last year’s Wellington College captain and specialist right wing. Kennedy has pace and balance and a prosperous kick and chase game as well. He led Wellington College to their famous Quadrangular Tournament win at home last June and produced several other standout performances. Kennedy was a Johnsonville Junior and re-joins his old club this season. The prospect of him combining with the likes of Jacob Walmsley at the back and others such as Olly Paotonu and the veteran Andy Ellis could have Hawks ‘eastern bankers’ returning in big numbers this year.

Tawa College v Wellington College, on 29 July 2023, at Tawa College,Tawa, Wellington, New Zealand

Jacob Kennedy – from Wellington College to Johnsonville this season. 

Finn O’Sullivan (Wellington College) – Like Kennedy, O’Sullivan was part of the Wellington College First XV and Centurions U18 teams. He played for the Wellington U20s earlier this year, and was selected for the Hurricanes U20 wider squad, but withdrew due to injury. He is a student at Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington. Like Irving, he is also a member of the Wellington Academy this year.

Ietitaia Campbell (Scots College) injured himself in his First XV’s final match of the 2023 season against Feilding High School. The first or second five eighth had a surgical procedure at the tail end of last year but has recently been seen back running and doing drills with Upper Hutt Rams’ DoR Dion Waller, so a return and a club rugby debut might not be far off for the player long-touted as a player to watch.

Jayde Burns (St Pat’s Town) played first five and kicked goals for St Pat’s Town last year, and often steadied their ship in a difficult season for the Town First XV that won five and lost four of their round-robin Premiership fixtures and missed the semi-finals. Burns is part of the WRFU Academy and played halfback for them in one of their matches and joins Northern United where he will be a welcome addition with some other newcomers to the Norths senior club (see below).

Ollie Cuff (St Pats Silverstream) – A talented halfback and left footed goal-kicker, who was a member of the St Pats Silverstream 1st XV and 7’s teams for a couple of years and also captained the side a few times. In 2022 he was the team’s top points scorer with 78, was injured for some of 2023 but came back strongly and made the Hurricanes U18s. Wellington Academy member Cuff is joining Old Boys University this year, after being part of the OBU Juniors between 2014-2016. He is part of a family lineage to OBU, with his Grandfather Brian Cuff coaching, Uncle Rohan Cuff who played for OBU and his Father Ian Cuff who still plays for the OBU Antiques. Ollie has also started doing his trade with Wellington Solar during the weeks but is expected to go shine bright on Saturdays.

Ollie Cuff gets a pass away last year, with Alex Hewitt watching on at the ruck.

Brayden Soi (St Pat’s Silverstream) Cuff’s former Silverstream teammate is a welcome addition to Wainuiomata’s squad in 2024. The regular Wellington age grade representative over the past few years and back row forward will have no shortage of experience around him to learn off and to continue to develop his game, in such players at Matt Jacobs and Teru Time, and his presence helps to inject a fresh amount of youth and enthusiasm to the club. In 2021 Soi as a year 11 scored the match-equalising try in the Premiersip final against Scots. In 2022 he won the final in the wet over St Pat’s Town and last year was an integral part of Silverstream’s side that won their ‘Grand Slam’ of Traditionals for the first time since 2018.

Brayden Soi – three years in the First XV and a good acquisition for Wainuiomata.

Braith Ingram (Gisborne Boys High School) – Last year’s Gisborne Boys’ High School First XV captain and flanker brings a rugged, physical approach to the specialist 7’s role at Petone this year – just the sort of player that could thrive in the Wellington competition. Ingram made the Hurricanes U18 squad last year.

Alex Hewitt (St Pat’s Silverstream) is also in the Wellington Academy this year and is joining the Upper Hutt Rams. Like his father Norm, Hewitt is a hard-working, head-down versatile tight forward who has transitioned to prop and who is an asset to all is teams. Formerly of HIBS, Hewitt is still 17 so he is likely to feature in the Rams Colts this year.

Tawa’s stable has a tradition of power forwards and bruising loosies, and this year’s school intake follows that path with three such players in Wellington College’s Ele Lupo, St Pat’s Town’s Aloali’i Faaita and nearby Tawa College’s Anthony Hunt. Hunt was his school’s captain last year and one of just two year 13s in the First XV that lifted the Beard Trophy. Lyndhurst Park promises to continue to be a hard place to win at for visiting teams.

Mana College played exciting attacking rugby in 2023 and their first five-eighth Evan Paenga is another player to watch at Tawa this year.

Paremata-Plimmerton welome Mana College’s captain and openside flanker Otis Baker to their club us year. As well as his leadership qualities, Baker is a relentless tackler and is often prominent with ball in hand and in support play. He is joined by his Mana College teammate Jason Faleafaga who, like his older brother Joe, is an outside back who knows his way to the tryline.

Otis Baker – leading Mana College from the front last year.

Other school-leavers of note heading to Paremata-Plimmerton include prop/hooker Marley Fretton (Rongotai College), midfielder Sio Letele (Bishop Viard College) and last year’s Aotea College captain and halfback Diontae March-Beddie.

As well as Alex Hewitt and Ietitaia Campbell (noted above), the Upper Hutt Rams will have several players at Maidstone Park this year straight out of school.

Flanker Jackson Mendoza is expected to push hard for Premier time throughout the year provided he stays injury free.

David Tokelautawa was last year’s Silverstream centre and fullback and has been playing pre-season with the Premier/Premier Reserves combined squads and is a talented player. Blaine Knapman is a big lock out of the Silverstream 1st XV and a good possibility of seeing some Premier action throughout the year. Will likely start as a key member of the Colts team (with the equally sizeable Deacon Orr returning for his second year at Colts).

Flyn Morgan – Upper Hutt College 1st XV’s Mr dependable/flexible after playing almost every position in recent years from hooker to lock and loosie, to midfield, and a reliable boot as well. He looks likely to be a key member of the Rams Colts squad.

Avalon will have last year’s bustling St Bernard’s College hooker Quinn O’Kane and Matthew Andrews (Naenae College) playing for them in 2024.

One other player joining Brayden Soi (see above) at Wainuiomata this year is inside back Joshua Le’afa-Paki with his flowing locks out of St Bernard’s College.

Joshua Le’afa-Paki opening Wellington College up in St Bernard’s College’ 14-7 win over them last year.

There are several school leavers joining Northern United this season. Several Norths juniors are returning home after contributing to their respective college rugby campaigns.

As well as Jayde Burns (above) exciting centre pairing from Wellington College Ezekiel Hotai and Fiti Aliva have made an earlier impression.

Young Loose Forwards Rakai Paea (Mana College) and Tane Landon-Lane (Aotea College) and Arkaid Edmonds King’s College, Auckland) show plenty of promise.

Several Porirua College School leavers also join the Norths fold in 2024.

The HOBM Eagles have reported that they have a core group of players joining their Colts set-up from school this year, but refrained from singling any one of these players out.

Some players joining Marist St Pat’s include St Pat’s Town players Solomona Vaka, Noah Misa-Paese and Petonio Foaese and St Pat’s Silverstream’s William Thurston. He is a couple of years out of school at Bishop Viard College, but Adam Perkins is just getting back into the game and has joined MSP.

Poneke have St Pat’s Town lock Ben Soli who will start the season in their Colts side, as will Charlie Manger from Hurstpierpoint College and Oliver Wigman from Eastbourne College (both UK).

Oriental-Rongotai will welcome Makhai Aukuso-Lolo and Pumba Siaosi from Rongotai College, as players for the future at the club that goes into the season holding the Jubilee Cup and John E Kelly Colts title.

What of other players? Amongst some of these players, it is understood that Tom Devery (HIBS) is in Otago, Jack Riley (Wellington College) in Canterbury, Pyrenees Boyle-Tiatia (Scots College) in the Waikato and Sione Latu (Scots College) is overseas.

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