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A huge crowd of mourners has farewelled Feilding High School rugby player Robert Hickland, who died after a 17-day fight for life following a serious neck injury sustained in a game last month.
Among the crowd of about 1200 at the funeral at the school on Saturday was New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) chairman Jock Hobbs and the union's community rugby manager, former All Black Brent Anderson.
More than 1000 packed the hall and the two-hour service was watched on closed-circuit monitors in two classrooms at the 1340-pupil school.
Mourners saw numerous clips of the young player in action, displaying the talents which won him selection this year in the New Zealand Under 17 squad.
The clips showed him scoring several tries from his regular position of fullback, including from the game in which he was injured against Rathkeale College, near Masterton, on June 28. He was flown to Christchurch's Burwood Hospital, remaining in the intensive care unit until his death last Tuesday morning.
School head of rugby Rick Francis said Hickland had been compared with Christian Cullen and at times "was" the team.
He told how the team went into a "test match" during a British tour in April against an academy team in Bristol as underdogs, but was lifted by the first of two tries by the young star and took control of the fixture to win.
"It was possibly the most significant win this school has had," he said.
Much of the service focused on the wellbeing of the players involved in the game and their schoolmates, including long-time girlfriend Rachel Goss who, along with her mother and Robert's parents, Mike and Pepe, had been at the player's bedside for much of the past three weeks.
Hickland's family urged that no players take on any blame, saying that there was nothing sinister or unusual about the tackle in which the injury happened and that there was no reason for anyone to give up their sport because of it.
The NZRU is expected to examine recordings of the tackle.
The school, in conjunction with Hickland's family, will consider ways to commemorate the young player and how to best utilise funds raised as Feilding rallied in the hope of helping the player's rehabilitation.
A service will be held at Rathkeale College on Tuesday.