Rugby: NZ Schools set for showdown with Australian Schools

The curtain falls tomorrow on a long rugby season for MAGS and NZ Schools threequarter Caleb Clarke. Photo / Thinkstock.
The curtain falls tomorrow on a long rugby season for MAGS and NZ Schools threequarter Caleb Clarke. Photo / Thinkstock.

The curtain falls tomorrow on a long rugby season for MAGS and NZ Schools threequarter Caleb Clarke.

The 17-year-old will line up at centre for the national team after scoring a try from the wing in Monday's 45-19 victory over Fiji Schools at his home ground.

Lying in wait are Australian Schools, who were felled 28-17 by the NZ Barbarians Schools on Monday and now have designs on usurping the Trans-Tasman Shield, which New Zealand have held since 2013.

"We were happy with the result on Monday, but we had things to work on ahead of tomorrow. We need to execute our basic skills a bit better," says Clarke, son of former All Blacks threequarter Eroni Clarke.

Clarke junior was in the 2015 NZ Schools squad, and came off the bench to replace captain Peter Umaga-Jensen, now a Wellington Lion, at centre, in the 32-8 Trans-Tasman Shield victory in Brisbane.

"This year is all about trust, having that bond with each other," says Clarke, who lines up alongside First XV teammates, prop Rob Cobb and lock Waimana Reidlinger-Kapa.

Clarke is wary of the threat Australia pose, despite their loss on Monday.

"Definitely we need to look at their running game around the ruck. That's what we reviewed and we'll try to combat that, play at our own pace and do what we want on our terms," Clarke declares.

He admits he is looking forward to a break from the game and all its training commitments after tomorrow, though there will be no mental rest, as he will face exams soon enough. Athletics, which he has done over summer, will also be on the cards, but he has signed with the Blues and Auckland for next season, after interest from other franchises and provinces, so he will be staying home. One would think he would gravitate to the Suburbs club, Auckland premier champions, where his old man played, but this is not yet set in concrete.

Clarke has sheer pace and is very strong around the hips, as his father was, so he looks well equipped to be able to play for Auckland in 2017, especially as their outside back depth has been tested this season.

Clarke senior is always ready with a helpful word or two.

"He gives me a lot of advice, especially it being my first year at centre. That's helped my game. He gives me a deeper understanding of the winger's role too," says the wing cum centre.

How much ball Clarke receives tomorrow may depend on the weather, but there has been some rejigging due to injury in the NZ Schools line-up.

Vilimoni Koroi was already ruled out last week, and the wing/fullback has taken on an assistant managerial role. Others to drop out injured from Monday are lock Hoskins Sotutu (shoulder), first five Ciarahn Matoe (ankle), while five-eighths Paul Roache (ankle) was already a casualty of the warm-up on Monday.

Coaches Jason Holland and Tom Cairns have called up, from the Barbarians, loose forward Sam Dickson, first five Lincoln McClutchie, who many felt was unlucky to miss NZ Schools selection in the first place, and Scott Gregory, who can play 10, 12 or 13 and was impressive off the Barbarians' bench on Monday.

Harry Plummer reverts to No 10, while Billy Proctor pushes in one to second five, partnering Clarke in midfield.

They have resisted the temptation to promote their sole specialist openside flanker Naera Tipoki, opting for the more muscular ball carrier Sione Havili to work with captain Brayden Iose and Ajay Mua.

"It's about getting the balance of how we are wanting to play with pace and matching the size of our opponents," says Holland.

There were some areas to tidy up after a sometimes messy win over Fiji.

"We were a bit frustrated with some of our skill, which was pretty average in that first half and we couldn't get our flow on, but our set-piece was real good, and we need that to be good again," says Holland.

Some of the physical Fijian play disrupted their patterns, but fullback Ngane Punivai scored two nice tries after some effective grunt closer in.

Australian Schools will bring size and an edge, after they were bitterly disappointed with the loss on Monday, though it remains to be seen how much they kept their powder dry.
"They'll go up a notch, but we've got some pretty good leads on how we want to play the game," adds Holland.

Working off a simple focus this week, Holland says cleaning of rucks and defensive accuracy will be paramount for his charges.

Four years ago on the same field, Australia inflicted an upset 16-14 defeat on New Zealand, while in 2006, on the lower Auckland Grammar field, a New Zealand team that fielded Zac Guildford and Sam Whitelock beat an Australian outfit that included Kurtley Beale.

After the match, the Jerry Collins Memorial/Rugby News Bronze Boot will be awarded to the best player from both sides, as it has done stretching back more than two decades. Alex Fidow was the New Zealand recipient in 2015.

The NZ Barbarians face Fiji Schools in the 1.10pm curtainraiser, and one would expect the Kiwis to maintain their four-year unbeaten international record.

NZ Schools: Ngane Punivai, Mosese Dawai, Caleb Clarke, Billy Proctor, Leicester Faingaanuku, Harry Plummer, Carlos Price, Brayden Iose (c), Sione Havili, Ajay Mua, Laghlan McWhannell, Waimana Reidlinger-Kapa, Rob Cobb, Bradley Slater, Tim Farrell; Reserves: Flynn Thomas, Xavier Numia, Damon Abraham, Sam Dickson, Naera Tipoki, Tim Hogan, Lincoln McClutchie, Scott Gregory

Australian Schools: Matthew McTaggart, William Eadie, Hunter Paisami, Nick Wilkinson, Yirrbi Jaffer-Williams, Adam Doueihi, Ryan Lonergan, Sunia Finefeuiaki, Luke Gersekowski (c), Justin Sikemeti, Esei Haangana, Matthew Willshire, Opeti Helu, Lachlan Lonergan, Lloyd Gorman; Reserves: Sean Farrell, Thomas Ross, Laurence Tominiko, Rory Suttor, Fraser McReight, Joshua Vuta, Isaac Lucas, Luke Osborne

Trans-Tasman Shield
New Zealand Schools v Australian Schools
Auckland Grammar School
Saturday, 2.55pm

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