It’s been a whirlwind last nine months or so for playmaker Cheyne Copeland and the St Mary’s College rugby team, finishing runners-up at the NZSS Top 4 Girls 15-a-side finals, winning the Wellington American Ambassador’s 7s tournament (that’s the senior club rugby 7s title), capturing the NZSS Condor 7s title, retaining the Sir Gordon Tietjens 7s crown and capping it all off a fortnight ago by being crowned world champions at the Sanix 7s tournament in Japan.
Not for the first time, Cheyne played a starring role in the Sanix 7s final against Japanese side Kokugakuin University Tochigi High School. St Mary’s were fast out of the blocks, building a big halftime lead only to see it evaporated early in the second half with a comeback. With the match in the balance, Cheyne took a quick tap and darted away to score the try that secured them the world title.
“We went into the last game in Japan really nervous; it was a different experience for us being a world event and so far away from home,” Cheyne explained to College Sport Media.
“The atmosphere was different. We normally have a lot of supporters on the sideline, but most of the girls’ parents weren’t there, whereas when we won the Condor 7s we had a lot of support and everyone had family around. So everyone just played for their family back home who weren’t able to see them play.”
What’s the secret to the team’s success? “Because we have played together for a while now we know how each other plays and we work together well. Also, no matter who we come against or what the game is our aim is to have fun, and when we have fun we get the job done.”
One example of this is when St Mary’s beat defending champions Oriental-Rongotai in last year’s Wellington club 7s final. “When we came up against Ories we just told each other just to have fun and don’t over-think things.”
Cheyne said it was also this attitude that helped them win the Condor 7s tournament. The team was held to a 12-12 with Tauranga Girls’ College in their final match on day one, but brought out the ‘fun’ mantra on day two and went on to beat Tauranga GC (quarterfinal re-match the next morning) 41-7, Southland Girls’ High School 19-7 and Hamilton Girls’ High School 19-17 in the final.
Cheyne is the captain of the 7s team, with Renee Savai’inaea the vice-captain. Dhys Faleafaga is the captain of the 15s team. Dhys’ sister, Lyric recently joined the Black Ferns Sevens teams in Japan as a travelling reserve.
Year 12 student Cheyne is the team’s first five-eighth and goal-kicker in 15s and halfback and playmaker in 7s. She’s a naturally gifted attacking player with pace and vision, while her kicking, both off the tee and in general play, is outstanding.
In last year’s Wellington Secondary Schoolgirls final against Aotea College, she set up no fewer than four tries directly through kicking (she also scored a try). Beauden Barrett emulated her feats recently for the Hurricanes against the Stormers.
Where did Cheyne learn to kick? “I started when I was 10 or 11 and it was my cousin that taught me the basics of kicking. Then I started practising with him and the thing that really stuck out for me with goal-kicking is the follow-through and to keep your head down.”
She puts her kicking in general play down to her understanding with her teammates. “Kicking during the game comes down to trust – I have heaps of trust in my girls, like Ana [wing Ainsleyana Puleiata] to be there at the right place and right time.”
Late last year seven of the St Mary’s players were selected as part of the WRFU Women’s 7s training squad. The players were Cheyne, Ana, Lyric, Dhys, Renee, Lomia Fa'amausili and Monica Tagoai (the only player in the group not still at school this year). Cheyne said training with the Wellington squad was invaluable. “Kat [NZ player Kat Whata-Simpkins] has helped me a lot, she has a great understanding of my position had gave me lots of tips that I can bring to the school team.”
A background in other sports has also helped considerably. As well as rugby, she also plays netball, athletics, tag and touch. She has previously represented New Zealand in U17 tag.
“I have played tag ever since I was little and have only recently been playing touch.” In athletics she’s been a sprinter, long jumper and shot putter and has played wing attack in netball.
In fact, much of the St Mary’s team has a background in other sports. Four girls in the side play volleyball, four play touch and Renee and Ana are both in the NZSS netball squad.
In a short space of time, rugby has blossomed at St Mary’s College. In little over two years, the sport has taken off to the point where St Mary’s will be fielding three teams this year, their First XV and two 10-a-side teams. The school is hoping to send a team to the Condor U15s team later this year along with their senior team returning to defend the title.
The St Mary’s College team that won the Sanix 7s in Japan was:
Olivia Aunoa, Cheyne Copeland, Lomia Fa’amausili, Dhys Faleafaga, Lyric Faleafaga, Janaya Lau-Young, Ainsleyana Puleiata, Damaris Samani, Ivana Samani, Renee Savai’inaea, Laina Semu, Katalina Tai
SMC vs Hong Kong Sports School (27-5)
SMC vs Kokugakuin University Tochigi High School (31-20)
SMC vs Fukuoka Ladies Rugby Football Club (31-5)
SMC vs Hartpury College (24-10)
SMC vs Kokugakuin University Tochigi High School (26-22)
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