It was a big occasion and even bigger opposition for the Air Chathams Wanganui Under 18's, who were well beaten by Wellington Centurions 47-12 in the Trustbank Central Secondary School Shield final on Saturday.
Hosting the game at Cooks Gardens in the curtain raiser to the Mitre 10 Heartland Championship match, Wanganui made early passing errors and then fell off tackles against their towering opposition – trailing 21-0 in nearly as many minutes, which became 33-7 by halftime.
An inspection of the shield showed that aside from Taranaki in 2006, the championship has been the domain of teams from Hawke's Bay and Wellington – usually the Centurions but occasionally the Wellington Samoans.
No squad from a Heartland union has claimed the prize, and it was easy to see why, as the team from the capital brought talented athletes with full adult builds like second-five Sam Taufa and a trio of forwards in flanker and captain Ridge Studd, multiple try-scoring No 8 Sione Halalilo, and towering lock Jabez Peniata.
For the five Centurions players from Wellington College, the victory was sweet revenge, given the Wanganui U18 side was dominated by Whanganui Collegiate players – who beat College at home in the annual Quadrangular tournament earlier this year.
"Just a bit tired, but it's the occasion – [we] got here and that's the bonus," said Wanganui coach Te Ahu Teki.
"They were more physical, really.
"We couldn't handle their big boys."
It appeared Wanganui could take an early advantage when Centurions centre Sage Shaw-Tait was sinbinned inside the first four minutes, but after trying to run it out from their own 22m, a loose pass went out and the visitors attacked from the lineout, with Halalilo stepping through to score.
Centurions also lost winger Reuben Pukey with a dislocated finger, but that just brought another tall speedster in Elijah Lakai, while Wanganui also had to watch zippy fullback Bill Tamani and first-five Richard Evans looking to open them up.
Defending their line again, Wanganui stacked too many defenders on the blindside, so Peniata attacked towards the posts and offloaded in the tackle for Halalilo to dot down again.
Almost straight from the kickoff, Centurions went wide to the grandstand touchline with great passes, as 6-7 players handled the ball as Evans ran back to midfield in Wanganui's half before finding Halalilo yet again to sweep through the cover defence and run the last 40m under the posts.
Wanganui needed to strike back and did so immediately from the next kickoff after Centurions knocked on, with the scrum ball spread wide to fullback Rangi Kui, a late replacement to start, and he showed great evasive running to get over in the corner, with first-five Te Atawhai Mason converting from touch.
It proved only a brief reprieve as Centurions tried a set move in Wanganui's half that saw Tamani all but score, and from the tryline ruck recycle, Studd drove his way over.
At 26-7, Wanganui needed the halftime whistle so they could regroup and come out with the breeze behind them, but Centurions weren't done as Studd made a long charge down the grandstand touchline, before his support players again offloaded sharply for Taufa to draw the last defender and put Lakai in at the corner, running swiftly back towards the posts right before the break.
Wanganui still made a strong start to the second stanza, as Mason put a grubber kick down for Kui, arriving at the ball the same time as Tamani, and the ball bouncing up between them would fall Kui's way – offloading for winger Logan Henry to score.
But the home side were destined to get no closer than 33-12, as they were hit hard on their carries and would eventually resort to more kick-and-chase tactics, which Tamani gathered in and would swiftly turn defence into attack.
He eventually broke the line and despite slipping over, gave a reverse flick pass to his support, as Centurions worked the ball onto Wanganui's tryline for reserve forward Jono Little to eventually dive over, which was well-converted by halfback Sam Champion.
Wanganui got a penalty to go back on attack, but coughed up the ball when an inside pass went down, which saw Taufa swoop to beat tacklers and dash away, setting up Shaw-Tait to make up for his earlier indiscretion by fending off the last defender to score.
Wellington Centurions 47 (S Halalilo 3, R Studd, E Lakai, J Little, S Shaw-Tait tries; Sam Champion 5 con, G Sims con) bt Wanganui 12 (R Tui, L Henry tries; T Mason con). HT: 33-7.