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Mark Hammett had witnessed enough last-minute momentum shifts, where the outcome of a game alters dramatically, to keep his emotions in check.
So it was no surprise the 29-test All Blacks hooker and St Thomas of Canterbury College old boy was unmoved at the boarding house end of St Andrew’s College’s first XV field on Saturday when his prop Richie Tupuailei barged over under the posts in the distance.
Remember Hammett, who returned to St Thomas’ this year to work in student development and mentor the first XV, had forlornly watched at close range as John Eales slotted a last-gasp Bledisloe Cup-saving penalty in Wellington 21 years ago.
As Hammett stood stoically, St Thomas’ players were instantly swamped by their schoolmates, and a proud relative ran onto the field, arms raised to the heavens, before embracing No 8 Fine Vaingalo.
Yet there was salvation for the Miles Toyota Championship holders. Blissfully unaware, the St Thomas’ cohort were still celebrating when St Andrew’s captain Will Stodart was told by the referee there was still 3min to play per his stopwatch.
So Stodart formulated a plan and it played out perfectly following a shallow restart. The hosts regained possession, worked through the phases and engineered enough space on the left flank for fullback Tom Ruwhiu to cross out wide. Full-time: 27-26.
“It really highlighted Will’s rugby IQ and his leadership,” said St Andrew’s College director of high performance sport Rod McIntosh.
“Walking to halfway he said to the boys: ‘We’ve got three minutes, we’re going to go down there, get the ball and score’. You couldn’t have scripted it better to be honest.”
“I felt for St Thomas, we were lucky. I was proud of the way our guys showed composure in a really critical time. There was no panic but St Thomas’ probably felt they’d done enough to put us away,” said McIntosh, who credited a programme that also features former Crusaders loose forward Johnny Leo’o as head coach.
“Strategically, from my point of view I watch all their junior teams. They’ve got big, big boys and they’re starting to organise their talent. They will be a force moving forward.”
St Thomas’ principal Steve Hart who was sideline felt the disappointment was fleeting.
“I’m over the moon with how they went. It was probably our first big game (against a title contender) and they’re a pretty young team. I thought this would be a rebuilding year, we’ve got 17 back next year,” said Hart, who had no issues with the timekeeping.
“It’s always up to the referee. It was a good game of footy. Both teams rolled into it.”
St Thomas’ can at least move on quickly, they open this weekend’s round against Lincoln Combined tomorrow while sixth-placed St Andrew’s travel to leader’s Timaru Boys’ High School, the only unbeaten side after five games of the 13-round competition, on Monday.
•Timaru BHS 24, St Thomas of Canterbury 22, St Bede’s College 20, Christ’s College 17, Nelson College 17, St Andrew’s College 15, Christchurch BHS 14, Marlborough BC 11, Shirley BHS 10, Lincoln Combined 10, Rangiora HS 9, Mid Canterbury Combined 6, Waimea Combined 5, Roncalli Waimea Combined 1.