Auckland 1A First XV final
Mt Albert Grammar v Sacred Heart
Eden Park, Auckland
There are several strands that add up to the fact that this Auckland 1A First XV final between Mt Albert Grammar and Sacred Heart is one of the most mouth-watering deciders of recent times.
For one, this fixture means the run of four St Kentigern-Auckland Grammar finals is over, and most neutral observers are enjoying that fact.
There is the fact that neither school has ever been demoted to the second tier of Auckland schools rugby - MAGS was founded in 1922 and Sacred Heart in 1903.
Both principals are sports-lovers - Pat Drumm of MAGS, and a Catholic to boot, and Jim Dale of Sacred Heart, and there is strong mutual respect between the two schools.
MAGS coach Geoff Moon is vastly experienced at Auckland First XV and club level and should his team triumph, he will join his old mate Charlie McAlister as the only current head coach to win both a 1A title and Gallaher Shield. Moon won the Gallaher with Otahuhu in 2000, while McAlister was at the helm of MAGS' last 1A triumph in 2010 - after a run of three championships in four seasons - and guided Suburbs to Gallaher glory just three weeks ago.
Sacred Heart coach Gus Leger, the former Tongan midfielder who was a brilliant softballer/baseballer, coached Wesley to four consecutive Counties Manukau schools titles from 2009-12. Leger attended Avondale College, where he went to school with Drumm's sister Emily Drumm, one of the great White Fern cricketers.
Both teams have dropped just one game all season. Sacred Heart, minus their two top bookends, crashed to a 34-11 home defeat to a rampant MAGS side six weeks ago that some were then calling the best First XV they had seen. MAGS' loss came a fortnight ago, 8-3 in the mud against St Kentigern, which meant the latter qualified second, just ahead of Sacred Heart.
Both teams have inspirational skippers. Sacred Heart openside Jack McHugh gave a towering display in the rousing 22-17 semifinal defeat of St Kentigern, while MAGS lock Waimana Reidlinger-Kapa is another lead by example character in the engine room.
MAGS turned it on to lower St Peter's 30-10 in the other semifinal, the highlight being a superb solo try to Niven Longopoa, one of several X-factor players, along with centre Caleb Clarke, in the MAGS group.
Sacred Heart have a peerless scrum, anchored by props Damon Abraham and Fatongia Paea. Their lineout is not quite so clinical, but they will use the athletic No 8 Hoskins Sotutu as an option there. While Sacred Heart's strength lies in the pack, it would be too simplistic to say this is merely a clash of their forwards against MAGS' speedy backline.
That would ignore the fact that MAGS have two workmanlike props of their own in Rob Cobb and Michael Palmer, a goalkicking hooker in Oliver Shepherd, and a dynamo No 7 in the form of Isaiah Papali'i, who scored three tries in the last match with Sacred Heart. It would also ignore the attacking talents of Sacred Heart centre Lemeki Namoa and wing Melino Huihui'Uia.
"We're looking forward to the opportunity to win the 1A against Sacred Heart, a school whom we hold in high regard as the benchmark for rugby culture in Auckland. They'll bring finals intensity and they'll look to take us on up front. I'm sure the game will be quite narrow early and then we'll see what happens," Moon says. "We can play in a variety of ways, so we'll bring a 15-man approach."
In the first round of 2015, MAGS and Sacred Heart met on Eden Park in a televised Super Rugby curtainraiser. Sacred Heart win 39-25 and Moon says that loss taught his boys a lesson about physical, driving forward play. Many of that MAGS side are running out tomorrow, having well absorbed those lessons.
This week, though, has been about keeping the emotions of these young men in check.
"It's been a fun week, but a slow and accurate week. We've made it 10 percent physical and 90 percent mental," says Moon.
"We took a lot from our 30-odd point win section play. If we can get our game right, we know we can deliver."
Leger takes a philosophical view of the defeat to MAGS, the only blemish (other than a draw with St Peter's) in a tremendous season where they have won several trophies, including the Hibernian Shield, the Fitzpatrick-Kirkpatrick Cup and the Henry Cooper-Brother Maurice Memorial Trophy. In the last fortnight they have put away Auckland Grammar 24-0 and the defending champs on their home turf.
"I looked at that MAGS loss as positive. We had a few out injured and lost (kicker) Matt Storm, so we gave a few others a chance to test themselves," Leger says.
Keven Mealamu presented the jerseys to the team yesterday and carried the message of "having the confidence to back yourselves."
Sacred Heart have been quietly working away in preparation this week, but the school is not about big-noting or arrogance.
"They are young men. We need to remember that. Many of the boys have never played in this environment," Leger says. "We think the two right teams have made it to the end. MAGS go in as favourites, but that's all cool."
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to deduce that Sacred Heart will play to its strengths.
"They are big boys. As you can see by the stature of our boys, they aren't the biggest crew, but we are going to back our conditioning to see if we can outlast them. We'll test them around the edges."
MAGS have won 22 1A titles, second only to Auckland Grammar, while Sacred Heart have claimed six, the last of which was in 1965, when the First XV coach was one Brother Michael Taylor, one of the most loved Marist brothers, a rugby (and cricket) man to the core and one who has a deep well of knowledge and a quiet humour. Now 87, what Br Michael would give to have the 2016 First XV replace the 1965 First XV in Sacred Heart rugby conversation.
Sacred Heart, in fact, though perennial semifinal contenders in the 1A, have never reached a final. Their best finish in the last 30 years came as runners-up in 1986, before the finals format, under Brother Murray Kelly, while a talented 1992 group under Brother Gerard Mahony placed third after the round-robin.
To illustrate the point that Sacred Heart have strong rugby depth, no less than eight of their teams are in grade semifinals tomorrow, and most of those teams will be on hand at Eden Park to cheer their heads off. Auckland Grammar is the only other school that can lay claim to as much success and depth through all their rugby grades down the years.
The winner of this clash will play Westlake BHS on August 27 to determine the Blues championship and who will represent the franchise at the national Top 4 tournament in Palmerston North in a fortnight.
The 1B final at midday in the curtainraiser sees Tamaki take on Liston, both sides having already qualified for the 2017 1A-1B promotion-relegation series to take on Otahuhu and Onehunga.
Only the South Stand will be open at Eden Park tomorrow, but a crowd well in excess of 10,000 is expected.
MAGS: Niven Longopoa, Noah Foster, Caleb Clarke, Paul Roache, Harley Maynard, Henry Tetini, Salyn Tonu'u, John Latu, Isaiah Papali'i, Thomas Barlow, Waimana Reidlinger-Kapa (c), Tomislav Baker, Michael Palmer, Oliver Shepherd, Rob Cobb; Reserves: Kahu Boyd, Christian Prescott, Terrel Peita, Mikaere Wiki, Ben Young, Kahurangi Morehu, Patrick Pati
Sacred Heart: Ben Engels, Melino Huihui'Uia, Lemeki Namoa, AJ Kepaoa, Josh Gray, George Witana, Taufa Funaki, Hoskins Sotutu, Jack McHugh (c), Iosefo Masoe, Anthony Tilialo-Staples, Harry Norgate, Damon Abraham, Joe Casey, Fatongia Paea; Reserves: Macaulay Casey, Crusader Faletagoai, Iosefa Maloney-Fiaola, Josh Retter, Logan Fonoti-Frost, Terry Pongi, Josh Ka
The game will be screened live on Duke (Freeview 13, Sky 23 and live-streamed via www.watchDUKE.co.nz) from 2.20pm.