Campbell Burnes has never hidden his admiration for First XV rugby, and he looks back at two of the best big games from last season.
After two Covid-19 disrupted seasons, the world of First XV rugby in Rugby Country returned to normal in 2022.
Or did it? While it was tremendous to get through a year mostly unimpeded by that accursed plague, there were some turn-ups.
John McGlashan College, widely known as Johnnies, uncorked a marvellous season, winning the ODT Cup and the South Island title, marching into the Top 4 with names like Timu, Mauger and Hore in their line-up. Chances are they won’t have another season like that in 2023, but it was great while it lasted.
How about Westlake BHS, the perennial king of North Harbour, edging Auckland’s 1A champion Kelston BHS in the Blues final to take a historic place in the Top 4? Now that was a red-letter year for this proud school with a well-organised programme and resources.
Speaking of the Auckland 1A, can you recall the last time all three of St Kentigern, King’s and Auckland Grammar missed the semifinals in one year? Neither can I…
Hamilton BHS has almost had a mortgage on the Super 8 title since 2006, but was edged 20-19 by close, and sometimes bitter, rival Rotorua BHS in the 2022 final. The charges of Nigel Hotham and Greg Kirkham did bounce back, as they often do, to clinch the Top 4 and lock away the Moascar Cup for the summer.
You won’t see the Auckland 1A on the box this year due to the somewhat controversial decision to ban the Sky TV cameras, but I’m sure someone will find a way of streaming certain matches.
Last year’s final, before a crowd of around 9000 at Eden Park, was a beauty, matching the classics of 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018. St Peter’s was unbeaten, the top qualifier and favourite, but was edged 24-22 by the westerners, who were declared champions in 2021 despite no playoffs being played.
It looked like the St Peter’s forwards versus the Kelston BHS backs, but that was an oversimplification. The former rocketed to a 10-0 lead but, inspired by right wing Star Sami, who made the NZ Schools, Kelston roared back and seized the initiative at 24-10. Errors allowed St Peter’s back into the contest, scoring two tries and drawing to within two points before time ran out on them, even as they dived in for what would have been a late try but for a strip.
If you want to see more action like that in Auckland in 2023, you’ll need to get to a ground to see it live.
The Top 4 final between Hamilton BHS and Napier BHS was, as we have come to expect, close, tense and top-notch, not far off the 2014 classic between Hamilton and Scots College of Wellington, if not featuring quite the breathtaking drama of the 2018 St Peter’s-Napier BHS decider.
The final scoreline of 17-15 to Hamilton for the NZ Barbarians Cup told little of the drama that unfolded, so I will try and sum it up succinctly.
The Hamilton BHS backs looked sharp as knives while the Napier BHS pack looked solid as a rock. Matching lineout-driven tries then led into a Napier try out wide. 12-5 to the men in light blue at oranges, who were toasting 150 years of the school.
There were forced errors by both sides, but Hamilton scored two classic tries, one to cutting-edge midfielder Aki Tuivailala and the other to right wing Caelys Putoko after a crucial turnover.
Composure at the death helped see Hamilton home to retain the Moascar and take its fifth Top 4 championship, and first outright since 2013.
We await more of this high-calibre First XV rugby in 2023.
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