Southern Cross Campus and Onehunga High School showed their poise under pressure to take out a couple of cracking finals at the 2016 NZRL National Secondary Schools Tournament.
For the South Aucklanders, their 16-12 win over Kelston Boys' High School represented their first title, after several years of finishing close, without quite achieving the ultimate prize.
Kelston took an early lead with a penalty goal, but their rivals scored the first try, through Siave Togoiu, and added a second to Samiuela Fisitaila after the break to lead 10-2.
Kelston weren’t done though, edging ahead 12-10 with two quick tries to Sale Savelio and Kadiaye Ioka, one converted by fullback Jahziahs Adams. Suddenly, they seemed on course for their fourth title and third in the space of four years.
But Southern Cross dug deeper, laying a platform for tournament MVP Kokai Togoiu to scramble over next to the posts and then convert. Moments later, the final siren sent the team and supporters into wild celebrations.
“It was just about our players believing in themselves, believing in the systems that we’d put in place and keeping the faith,” said coach Rod Ratu, who has had strong links with the Vodafone Warriors' development system.
“There was some déjà vu … we had to come from behind against Tokoroa in pool play and St Paul’s yesterday. Quietly, the boys were confident, they didn’t panic and knew once they got down there, they’d be able to finish it.
“For Kakoi and his brother and their family, it was a special moment for them all. There’s obviously a big future in the game for those boys and we’ll be there to support them.”
Southern Cross hooker Samiuela Lauhingoa was named MVP of the final.
Earlier, Onehunga stormed home over the closing minutes to snatch a dramatic 21-20 win over Tai Wananga in the development final.
The joint Hamilton/Palmerston North entry, who had beaten their rivals earlier in pool play, stormed out to a quick 14-0 lead and seemed well in control with a 20-6 margin soon after half-time.
But Onehunga regained their composure as the clock counted down, running in three tries to Mauri Bell, John Kaifa and Michael Lemafa, one converted, to tie the scores at 20-20.
Then, with barely a minute remaining, they sealed the victory with a dropped goal from in front of the posts by Trevor Marurai.
“It was a good final,” said Onehunga coach Chris Ofanoa. “Tai Wananga came and did their thing, especially in the first half.
“For the second half, I had to give a pretty harsh team talk to our boys, give them a boot up the [backsides] and they fought back.
“The boys were not sticking to their structure, what we had practised all week, and I knew at half-time, I just had to tell them to stick to our structure.
“I think they came out, saw the TV cameras and lights, and it was white-line fever for everyone.”
Lemafa was named Most Valuable Player of the development final.
NZRL National Secondary Schools Tournament
Bruce Pulman Park, Papakura
Friday, September 2
Premiership | St Thomas of Canterbury 22, Manukura School 4; Papatoetoe 34, Aranui HS 16; Mt Albert Grammar 24, Otahuhu College 14; Wesley College 40, Avondale College 24; Manurewa HS 18, Aorere College 10; Tamaki College 22, Tokoroa HS 20; Westlake BHS 32, St Paul’s College; Southern Cross Campus 16, Kelston BHS 12 (final).
Development | Mt Roskill Grammar 36, Papakura HS 12; Trident HS 14, Sir Edmund Hillary College 10; Onehunga HS 21, Tai Wananga 20 (final).