College Sport: First all-girls' rugby academy launched

By Campbell Burnes

Some of the Kelston Girls' College rugby academy with old girls Aldora Itunu (back row, far left), Linda Itunu (front row, far right, and Monalisa Urquhart (nee Codling), front row, far left).
Some of the Kelston Girls' College rugby academy with old girls Aldora Itunu (back row, far left), Linda Itunu (front row, far right, and Monalisa Urquhart (nee Codling), front row, far left).

Watch closely in 2017 and 2018 for the first signs of the Kelston Girls' College rugby academy bearing fruit.

Recently launched, the academy is the first of its kind for an all-girls' college in Auckland, and the hope is to capitalise on the growing interest in rugby from schoolgirls, many of whom have come from other sports or are lured by the presence of sevens at the Olympics.

Kelston GC sports co-ordinator Sam Baker said the germ of an idea for the academy started at the end of the 2015 season, when there were just 10 girls playing rugby at the school, in a sevens team. He and principal Linda Fox decided to form a rugby academy, which has seen 20 students in 2016 benefit from several practical sessions a week on the game, looking mainly at fitness and skills. The range is Years 9-12, with a focus on youth development.

"We focused on the future this year, as we knew it would be a trying year for us," says Baker.

"We've got girls that are amazing athletes. They just need to learn the ins and outs of rugby, so we are learning the rules, pass and catch, set-piece, learning how to lift in lineouts and pushing in scrums."

From 10, Kelston now has 69 girls that have played rugby in 2016, meaning they have been able to field three sides: a First XV, and teams in the 10-a-side and seven-a-side grades. Numbers have dropped off later in the season as injuries hit hard and studies take priority, and wins in the First XV grade, in particular, have been hard to come by. But this was expected, as Kelston has not fielded a First XV in several seasons. One game was defaulted as a sharp reminder that the girls needed commitment to training to take the field on Monday afternoons. Baker has, however, taken heart in recent results, which have seen competitive losses to Avondale (15-5) and defending champions Southern Cross (36-7).

Several of the First XV girls are enjoying the academy sessions, and Joeannha Percell has already cracked the Auckland Thunder (the second women's provincial rep side). Two have made the Auckland Under 15s and several trialled for the Auckland Under 18s.

So it will take time to gain that priceless playing experience and knowledge, and Kelston can tap into the Auckland Rugby Union coaching resources. Storm assistant coach JP Fa'amausili has been along to trainings. Next year the hope is to ramp up the academy sessions to include theory, and rugby-applied learning.

It is a solid starting point, and Baker hopes that with around 50 girls new to rugby in 2016, they can apply their lessons for marked improvement on the field in 2017.

Kelston's academy has got the ringing endorsement from old girls, Black Ferns sisters Linda and Aldora Itunu and four-time Rugby World Cup winner Monalisa Urquhart (nee Codling).

Urquhart recalls her days at school in the mid-1990s when Kelston had one rugby team that won their competition. She used to watch them, as she was into her netball and basketball.

"It was because of watching them play then that I played when I went down to Dunedin," she says. Within three seasons, she had made the Black Ferns from Otago.

"Kelston will look to build on this, because it holds the pathway, not just to the Olympics, but the Black Ferns. England now has a pseudo-professional rugby competition. The women's rugby landscape is changing and the opportunities out there are huge," says Urquhart, who played 30 tests for the Black Ferns from 1998-2010.

She is keen to help out with Kelston when she can.

"Rugby is not just about the physical skills, it's the mental skills, life lessons, team work and hard work. These girls have got dreams, aspirations and plans. They want to be Black Ferns. Some will go forward quicker than others."

- NZ Herald

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