First XV rugby is back - and so is the Herald's weekly look at the top teams and the players to watch. Today, Reuben Mama profiles the epic rivalry between Auckland Grammar School and King's College and previews their top-of-the-table clash on Saturday.
It has been 126 years since their first meeting, but Auckland Grammar School's First XV rugby rivalry with King's College is still widely anticipated.
The two schools have faced each other on 208 occasions since the first match in 1896, with Auckland Grammar triumphing 132 times, King's College notching up 60 wins, and 16 draws, and their meeting this Saturday at King's College will be a top-of-the-table clash.
Auckland Grammar School director of sports development and First XV assistant coach Dave Askew says former All Blacks have suggested the regular rivalry game is the next best thing to a test match.
"They're probably talking about the way people outside of the players approach this game because it does bring communities behind each of the teams and a known significant number of people to the game," says Askew.
"People talk about this week and this game more than any other game throughout the year - it can create quite a different atmosphere to play in as opposed to other games. Those are all-important things for the boys to understand on both sides, then you add the fact it's been going on for so long and that creates a community following. You add to that the early interpretation of a private school versus a state school and those types of connotations.
"As time's gone by the schools have been similar in the way they approach things and that creates a rivalry too, because people want to be the best and when you've got people wanting the same thing that creates a healthy competition against each other.
"You put all of those things into the pot and it does create a special thing to be a part of and you just hope that when you are a part of it that you can remember the game fondly."
In pursuit of optimal on-field performances amid myriad off-field distractions in the build-up to the traditional fixture, Askew has tried to make things as simple as possible for all involved with the Auckland Grammar First XV.
"We try and keep things the same as what we would normally do. I played in three Grammar vs King's games and I lost every bloody one. What I think I learned from that is the additional hype didn't help. When I took over as coach in 2012 we stripped everything back. We used to have Friday afternoon meetings on top of the trainings we'd already had that week and it ended up becoming this big emotional thing 24 hours before kick-off, which just became draining. We got rid of all that stuff and stripped it back to what a normal week would look like regardless of if we were playing King's.
"We then won five in a row so we've used that as a bit of a blueprint to what helped and what didn't help and spoke to some players around what they felt did help and what didn't help. Now we've got what we feel to be quite a consistent approach around the game."
One of the unique distractions players have to deal with at a young age is the addition of multiple television cameras and social media. Outside of the usual 5000 people who attend the match, now eyeballs around the country and world can feast on every play good and bad that occurs throughout.
It's something that isn't lost on Askew from an educational standpoint.
"We do quite a lot of mental skills, specifically because we're on TV and the students aren't mature enough to have all the strategies to deal with some of things that take place when you do play on TV.
"We allow students to feel like they can simply just play the game regardless of the burden of outcome or making a mistake on TV or anything like that. We feel that's worked out quite well for us, but like anything it's evolving because today's player isn't like players from five years ago, so it's about understanding them and their age group and what they like."
All Blacks factory
Auckland Grammar School has produced more All Blacks – 52 - than any other school in New Zealand. The Ioane brothers Rieko and Akira are the latest to don the famous black jersey.
The rivalry between Auckland Grammar and King's provided a stepping stone for one of the most exciting players in the modern game to showcase early glimpses of what he would be capable of, with Askew enjoying a front-row seat.
"I can still remember Rieko's debut for the First XV as it was actually against King's," he recalls.
"I remember it was of those games that finishes and you think 'Man, if you can handle that level of expectation and pressure environment at this level in your debut game, you're going to be able to handle some other things going forward in life', and obviously he's gone on and done that.
"We're incredibly proud of that, but the thing I'm most proud of is they come back and give back. You get the likes of Akira and Rieko Ioane and Shaun Stevenson who will come into the changing room after a game and have a couple of words with the boys or even just shake hands. What makes me most proud is they want to come back and acknowledge that this is what their place was and they want to connect with the next player.
"That's the stuff kids dream about – what's life like when you leave school? Because you hear about it, so getting from a guy that's in a professional environment or a guy that's not going so well and challenges he's facing with injury or adversity with selection and understanding those things really helps give them some ideas of what it's like to leave school and set the tone for doing your best while you are there."
Those who attend Auckland Grammar School are reminded of its history and are encouraged to learn from those who have been before them, while striving to create their own unique pathway.
"We try to overcome the nature of students coming and going by having a diverse leadership group so you don't always have the position where all your Year 13s leave and you don't have anyone left, so the boys have a leader of the younger guys and then someone in the middle in terms of age and then of course you've got your senior guys who have been around a little longer.
"Fundamentally for us, our captain and hooker Finau Halafihi is critical, in terms of the way we play the game and also the fact he's a leader and is a real 'follow me' type of guy. Our vice-captain is midfielder Fatafehi Fineanganofo and those two work really well together, and we've got some other influential people who are in their second or third year in the team - Konrad Lotu'inga who plays lock, he's in his third year in the First XV and openside flanker Sam Hainsworth-Faaofo and Riley Williams, who plays fullback, are all from last year's team."
After four rounds Auckland Grammar sit second on the ladder behind King's, with three wins over Dilworth School, Saint Kentigern College and Kelston Boys' High School, while they also suffered a narrow loss to Sacred Heart College.
The stakes of this weekend's top of the table game – with King's the defending champions - have been heightened due to the fact there are no finals this year and whoever finishes top of the table following the round-robin will be crowned champions.
Askew recalls the last time the competition was a straight round-robin, in 1995, where he played for the Grammar First XV side which lost to Kelston in the first round. Both teams went undefeated the rest of the season, with Kelston taking out the title – a memory Askew notes is a good lesson for the 2020 Grammar squad.
However, he stresses that the definition of success at Auckland Grammar is seen as much more than on-field results.
"It's pretty dangerous to set goals around outcomes such as winning the championship and games," Askew explains.
"We don't talk about judging ourselves on whether we win or lose, because as anyone knows in sport you can deserve to win and for whatever reason not.
"So for us it's about being true to the Auckland Grammar values if we've got teams out there in our uniform. We want our community to be able to easily identify them by the way they hold themselves, everything that comes out of their mouths, how they interact with opposition and how they respond to winning and losing. Those are the things that actually define you as a Grammar boy and if you get those things right then more often than not you'll get the outcome you're after."
Auckland 1A First XV Schedule 2020 Round Four – Saturday, August 8:
• Dilworth School vs St Kentigern College: Dilworth School: Field 1 - 1pm.
• Sacred Heart College vs De La Salle College: Sacred Heart College: Field 1 - 2.30pm.
• Liston College vs Mount Albert Grammar School: Liston College: Field 1 - 2.30pm.
• Kelston Boys' High School vs Tangaroa College: Kelston Boys' High School: Field 1 - 2.30pm.
• St Peter's College vs Aorere College: St Peter's College: Field 1 - 2.30pm.
• King's College vs Auckland Grammar School: King's College: Field 1 - 2.45pm.