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Newton, the back-up openside, held the chasers at bay and sealed St Andrew’s College’s maiden UC Championship with four minutes remaining, his runaway surge capping a stirring comeback against perennial first XV powerhouse, Christchurch Boys’ High School.
StAC had clawed back from an early 20-0 deficit to outscore CBHS 35-6 over the final hour or so, the full-time whistle prompting delirium among players, coaching staff, students, a lone piper, former old boys – and girls.
For director of high performance sport and rugby, Rod McIntosh, Saturday’s victory vindicated his long-term vision, a project the former Waikato representative and Hong Kong national coach instigated – then modified – shortly after he arrived in Christchurch.
“When I got the position I thought: ‘We can win, I’ll turn these guys around’ but the reality is you can’t battle critical mass,” he said.
“There’s 3000 boys at Christchurch Boys’ we’ve got 2500 at (St) Bede’s. We’re a co-ed school, we’ve got 500 boys and out of that 170 play rugby, so I basically get 50 kids to pick a first XV from.
“What that means is we have to do everything really smart. I went from thinking we could be the best team in the country to we could be the best programme in the country.
“When it was a boys school it (StAC) was traditionally very, very strong. The decision to go co-ed (in 1991) . . . you still have a train of thought that that wasn’t good for the school, though the reality is economically we needed to do it to sustain the school. It’s flourished ever since.”
The elite rugby component conceded ground, however, with the class of 91 the last first XV to celebrate locally before advancing to the national top four competition.
“Five years ago we put in new systems and structures to develop a different type of player here,” McIntosh said.
“I wanted to create the thinking player. I see a lot of kids play rugby but I don’t see many kids think rugby. That’s developing tactical understanding, putting into play game plans.
“We also put a high focus on skill development and we want to be the fittest team in town.”
All that work needed a play component as well, with McIntosh acknowledging a ‘fun factor’ was critical.
“Teenagers these days have so many other choices. I lost a prop because he wanted to go trap shooting, some guys wanted to go motocross. The upshot of that is (rugby) still has to be really enjoyable.
“We try and professionalise the game so early we forget that one of the main fundamentals is to have fun and enjoy being with your mates.
“That’s a key hinge in my programme. If you combine enjoyment with continual learning you’ll get performance.”
“If they don’t hit their grades or show the effort – we have a fortnightly grade for behaviour and effort – and if they don’t hit their required minimum they don’t play. We’ve stood boys down who didn’t, you’ve got to draw that line in the sand,” he said.
“We don’t expect them to be Rhodes Scholars but they have to be working to the best of their ability in the classroom.”
Obviously recruitment is also a key to level the playing field in Christchurch, with promising midfield back Isi Saumaki, who scored a first half brace in the decider, summing up the importance of talent identification.
“I picked up Isi as a 15-year-old from Motueka. The kid had learning needs so not only has he come through as an exceptional athlete, he’s got an education,” McIntosh said.
Saumaki is now bound for the Crusaders academy once he takes part in a New Zealand Schools camp – where selection in the New Zealand Barbarians is the substitute for Covid-19 wiping out the annual top four competition.
Hooker Mini Toga and halfback Joel Parry are other year 13 players heading to the camp while blindside flanker Torian Barnes will be available to defend the title in 2021.
Another year 12 standout, No 8 Will Stodart is on standby and if required StAC will have more players at the 44-strong camp than any other school.
“It’s incredible to get that level of representation,” said one-time All Black trialist McIntosh, who played alongside the likes of John Mitchell, Warren Gatland, Richard Loe, Duane Monkley and Ian Foster during Waikato’s NPC and Ranfurly Shield-winning era in the early 90s.
The former utility back had barely had a winners’ medal placed over his head during their post-match presentation before he was looking ahead to ensuring this StAC title was not an aberration.
“We’re already talking about changes and tweaks and stuff we can do better,” McIntosh said.
“We’ll have a good team next year, we’ll have 11 or 12 back and we’ve got a good group of 16s.
“That’s really critical for me. I’ve got to make sure there’s good critical mass in the age groups and you’ve got to make sure your pathway is strong so when the new year 12s come into it they know what to expect.”