Northland's under-16 girls' rugby players are showing their potential with a second-place finish at last week's Northern Region rugby competition.
In their first appearance at the tournament with only two trainings under their belt, Northland made it through two pool games to make the Northern Region under-16 girls tournament final where they lost 39-nil against Auckland, playing at St Paul's Collegiate School in Hamilton.
The Northland team showed their promise early in their first game against North Harbour. Leading 12-0 at halftime, Northland conceded an early try in the second half before running away with the game, scoring two more tries to win 26-5.
2019 Northern Region U16 Girls - Final - Northland v Auckland
Highlights of our Northland Girls taking on the might of Auckland in the 2019 Northern Region Under 16 Girls tournament held at St Pauls Collegiate in Hamilton yesterday.Posted by Northland Women's Rugby on Friday, 19 July 2019
Northland's centres pairing of Pohutukawa Kakara and Emily West were the main contributors, Kakara scoring twice West scoring once in addition to her three conversions.
Northland then played Taranaki in a game which would determine who advanced to the final against the top qualifier in the other pool. Northland lost on the scoreboard, 7-5, in a hard-fought game in terrible conditions, but thanks to Taranaki violating a rule which governed the minimum amount of game time a player needed, it gave Northland their chance to win the title.
Going up against a bigger and stronger Auckland side in the final, Northland's chances weren't helped by the wet, muddy conditions and Auckland went on to win the game 39-nil.
"I thought we could have given [Auckland] a good run," Northland under-16 team coach Gareth Salmon said.
"We had potential but coming up against the 'big sister', I don't know whether we shut down coming up against a bigger team."
Salmon said his side had played well in their pool games and showed good skills in spite of their small training window.
"We were finding the overlaps quite easily against North Harbour which was quite positive especially with their limited training.
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"The lucky thing was these girls had skills from playing their club rugby, league and touch, so my [job] was just giving them a game plan and it worked."
Among a range of good showings, Salmon highlighted the efforts of Kakara, captain Tara Turner and forward Kenya Watene who gave strong performances against formidable opposition.
Northland Rugby Union (NRU) rugby development coach Josh Hyde travelled with the team to Hamilton and said it was great to see an array of skills on show from Northland's young talent.
"[The players] showed what they had been learning and put it on the field, it's positive for Northland rugby in general, to see those so young performing well on a big stage."
With senior women's rugby returning to Northland this year at the club level and age-group girl's rugby receiving a boost, Hyde said Northland's younger players had more of a chance to compete against the bigger regions.
"Those girls [from Auckland] are playing first XV for their schools so their development is probably a few years ahead, but the work being done with the competitions this year narrows that gap."
Northland's success at the age-group level coincides with preparation for Northland's first season in the women's domestic rugby competition, the Farah Palmer Cup (FPC), this year. The first full training session for FPC and under-18 players was held on Sunday, eight weeks out from Northland's first FPC game against Hawke's Bay in Napier on September 7.
More than 50 players turned out in Kaikohe for the session, including Black Fern Te Kura Ngata Aerengamate. NRU women's rugby development manager Scott Collins said it was great for younger players to see those with experience have a hand in their development.
"The under-18 [players] can see the Farah Palmer Cup, and now the Farah Palmer Cup players can see the Black Ferns rather than leave the province to attain higher honours," he said.
"With the under-16s programme hoping to expand next year, we can hopefully build a solid pathway to the top and include their programme moving forward."
Collins said the geographical spread of players was a big hurdle to overcome in a strictly amateur programme. While he accepted the return of women's rugby to Northland hadn't gone perfectly this year, Collins said he was committed to raising the standard of women's rugby at an age-group, club and regional level.
"I know that we didn't get everything right this season but we have made a start and we can only learn and look to make 2020 a better year.
"With the talent coming through in the age groups we are looking good for the future, but we still have a lot of work to do to try and make rugby the first sport of choice for all Northlanders."
The next FPC/under-18 training session will be on Sunday in Whangārei where players will meet at the NRU gym before heading to Pohe Island at 1pm for on-field testing and skill work.