Southland first XV sides look strong as ever
The Highlanders first XV rugby competition starts on Saturday with 14 schools from Southland, Otago and North Otago taking part. Logan Savory looks at the the six Southland schools involved.
■ ST PETERS COLLEGE
St Peters College were one of the success stories of the Highlanders first XV competition last year after originally not being involved.
They were a late addition after Dunedin school Kavanagh College pulled out.
St Peters College were more than competitive showing plenty of positive signs at the level above the Southland under-18 competition.
However coach Russell Morton said 2014 could be a building year for the school for bigger and better things next year.
The Gore school has lost 13 players from last year's team and the bulk of the 2014 team are either year 11 or 12 with only a handful of year 13 players.
"Hopefully, if we can do well in the bottom six section that would be good," Morton said.
"Anything better than that would be a real bonus."
St Peters have had four pre-season games, including participating in a quadrangular tournament.
They beat Verdon College and Kavanagh College but lost to St Kevins and Roncalli College.
The school does have one of the province's more exciting young players in it's mix in the form of No 8 Jim Bulitavu.
He joined St Peters College last year on a scholarship from Fiji and was named Southland's under-18 player of the year.
■ JAMES HARGEST COLLEGE
With just seven players returning from last year, James Hargest College coach Greg Smith is realistic that 2014 is a development year for the team.
Smith said the players were a committed and eager bunch but the team probably lacked the depth that other schools possessed.
He said a mid-table finish would be a great result for the team.
"I think it would be fair to say we're a pretty green mob. I've lost a lot of players from last year," Smith said.
"My quote is we are bunch of skinny small white guys to be fair and that is exactly what we are when you compare us to the depth that some other schools have got."
They have formed a partnership with Aparima College where four players from the Riverton school will lineup for James Hargest College in the Highlanders competition.
Smith said it helped his team but also gave kids at Aparima College the chance to play at the first XV level.
"These guys would either be not playing or having to play senior rugby so that is why we have done it."
James Hargest has had six pre-season games, which included wins over Central Southland College and Aranui High School.
They had hard-fought losses to the St Bedes 2nd XV and Menzies College but were well beaten by South Otago High School and Knox Grammar from Australia.
■ GORE HIGH SCHOOL
Gore High School coach Donald McGuigan says his team hasn't got any lofty aspirations this season with the focus simply on making sure they get better every week.
"We just want to end up a better team than when we started the season and learn every week because it's a rebuilding phase, so just to improve every week is our main goal."
The school has had four pre-season games beating Central Southland College before losing to Mt Aspiring, Dunstan High School and Menzies College.
"We learned from all of them. They have been a bit of a mixed bag but the guys don't lack for enthusiasm and the trainings have been good," McGuigan said.
"We don't have any rock stars, just a lot of eager and keen young fellas."
Gore start their season on Saturday with the grudge match against fellow Gore school St Peters College.
St Peters won the fixture last year.
■ SOUTHLAND BOYS' HIGH SCHOOL
Southland Boys' High have traditionally been the province's premier rugby school and nothing is expected to change this year.
They are the best chance for a Southland to win the competition this season and, with Otago Boys' High School, hold the competition favorites tag at the moment.
The Invercargill school has 12 players returning from the team which was pipped by Otago Boys' High School last year in the final.
They have also picked up some new players including Famu Tavui who has arrived from Fiji on a scholarship and will line up at No 8.
The 2013 Southland under-16 player of the year James Napier and first five-eighth/halfback Jarvis Wallace has transferred from Gore High School to Southland Boys' High.
Coach Jason Dermody said the return of 12 players from last year and the addition of the new players had put them in good stead.
"It was good to get them. People think we approached the (Gore pupils) but they just turned up at school with their parents and did a tour and started this year so that's good for us. We got a bit of stick but we can put a good rugby programme in place and attract the good players from Southland but we don't really approach players," Dermody said.
Halfback Liam Howley and prop Shaun Stoddard will be two frontline players from Southland Boys' this year and both could push for a place in the New Zealand secondary schools team at the end of the year.
Dermody's team has had three pre-season fixtures which included a game against Australia's premier rugby school's St Augustines.
They lost 18-8 but Dermody said it was the tough hitout they were after.
They also delivered an impressive result beating Christ College 26-5 and Roncalli College 31-6.
■ CENTRAL SOUTHLAND COLLEGE
A couple of years back the Central Southland College wasn't able to field a school first XV team but this season will build back up to the point they can test the waters again playing in the Highlanders first XV competition.
They were beaten finalists last year in the Southland under-18 competition losing to the Southland Boys' High School second XV.
The team is coached by long-serving Midlands frontrowers Dayna Cunningham and Ben McHugh and McHugh conceded the step up to the Highlanders competition was probably a year earlier than they had planned.
"We've got a really good under-15 side so we'll have about 20 of them available for us next year so if we can get through this year we should be looking good," he said.
"The following year I'd like to think we could finish mid table maybe and be alright. We will be competitive this year. We've got a good team but I'd say we'll be more bottom six."
McHugh and Cunningham are juggling their own playing commitments at Midlands with coaching the Central Southland College.
Prop Stu Thompson was part of the Southland under-16 team last season and will be a key player as will Daniel Thwaites in the forwards.
■ MENZIES COLLEGE
Menzies College coach Chris Allison is happy with the pre-season form of his team heading into the opening game but concedes facing some of the competition heavyweights this season is going to be a much different story.
They have recorded wins over James Hargest College, a Woodlands team, Central Southland College and Gore High School in pre-season.
Allison believes it will be on Saturday against Oamaru School St Kevins and then the next week against Southland Boys' High School where they may get a good indicator as to where they are at.
‘Were a reasonably young side and some of them might be 12 months away from where we would like them but we'll just see how we go," he said.
"We'll have some bad days but we could be a banana-skin for a few teams."
Menzies last season finished sixth out of 12 teams.
- The Southland Times