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Counties Manukau Stingrays have finally turned the rotten luck of recent years to their favour, toppling rivals Akarana Falcons 18-16 to capture the 15s title at the NZRL National Youth Tournament in Rotorua.
Since the age-group competition reverted to a week-long affair in 2014, the South Aucklanders have been on the wrong end of some heart-breaking outcomes in both 15s and 17s grades, as the Falcons have reigned supreme.
But coach Mike Cudd’s boys have enjoyed some payback in an encounter that swayed one way and then the other.
Counties ran up an early 12-0 advantage, with tries to Diaz Tahia and Fangupo-Paea Fotu, both converted, before Akarana rallied through Daneous Sosaiete and Samuel Kamu.
Locked up 12-12 at half-time, the Falcons took a 16-12 lead soon after the restart, with a try to Totive Junior Tuileisu, and the game seemed to be slipping away from the Stingrays, who had now conceded 16 unanswered points.
But they weren’t done, with Fotu grabbing his second try down the home stretch and Te Napi Waipouri converting. Akarana were hot on attack when the final siren sounded, but were not able to steal victory back.
“This means a heap to us,” insisted Cudd. “The boys have put in a lot of hard work to get here, there were some tough teams through the build-up and we knew the Falcons don’t get beaten very often.
“It came down to the last bounce of the ball. In the last 30 seconds, it could have gone either way, but Lady Luck was smiling on us today.”
Akarana second row Christian Tuipulotu was named Most Valuable Player of the final and Fotu was recognised as outstanding player of the tournament.
The Falcons were more successful in the 17s final, where they overwhelmed the plucky South Island Scorpions 44-6.
Midway through the opening half, the scores was 6-6, after Carlos Henry had put the Aucklanders ahead and Jordan Leigh responded in kind for the southerners.
But the Scorpions had played their hearts out the previous day to oust Counties Manukau in the semi-finals and seemed to run out of inspiration, as Akarana began to impose themselves.
Winger Mathew Timoko ran in a pair of first-half tries and right on the half-time siren, second row Elijah Sufia followed up an opportunistic kick ahead by prop Samuela Vaegi to open up a 28-6 margin.
South Island dug deep over the final 40 minutes, but had nothing left in the tank. Akarana ran in eight tries, six of them converted by Regan McClennan.
“We’re full of respect for the quality game that South Island gave us,” said Falcons coach Keith Hanley. “They put in a great effort to be where they are today and deserve our full admiration.
“We were mindful that they were very strong through that middle third, so we put it on our forwards personally to meet that challenge and I think they responded in a fairly reasonable sort of way.”
Leigh was named MVP of the tournament, but Timoko deserved his player-of-the-day award for breaking the spirit of the Scorpions with his double.
Hanley’s season is far from over – he must drive back to Auckland tonight to guide the Falcons senior team through the NZRL National Premiership Final on Saturday.
NZRL NATIONAL YOUTH TOURNAMENT
Puketawhero Park, Rotorua
Friday, September 30
(5/6) South Island Scorpions 28 (David Knight, Manaia Edwards-Aumua, Salio Tafaese, Caius Faatili & Griffin Neame tries; Edwards-Aumua 4 goals) Wellington Orcas 26 (Maui Wallace, Dallas McEwan, Leon McLeod-Venu, Itai Tuai & Stanley Fiso Vaelei tries; Keelan Ng 3 goals)
(7/8) Central Vipers 28 (Kayin Katene 2, Tyrese Ratahi, Brooklyn Herewini, Tama Kawana & Caleb Fowell tries; Herewini 2 goals) Northern Swords 10 (Dilano Turner & Nathaniel Colmer tries; Klies Kaiarake goal)
(3/4) Wai-Coa-Bay Colts 12 (Keagan Wharemate, Jahkay Roberts & Koia Katu-Roberts tries) Auckland Vulcans 10 (Soaki Taufa & Peni Kepu tries; Trent Autaua goal)
(final) Counties Manukau Stingrays 18 (Fangupo-Paea 2 & Diaz Tahiia tries; Te Napi Waipouri 2 & Fotu goals) Akarana Falcons 16 (Samuel Kamu, Totive Junior Tuileisu & Daneous Sosaiete tries; Tuinamo Tepulolo 2 goals)
Winners – Counties Manukau Stingrays
Runners-up – Akarana Falcons
Final MVP – Christian Tuipolotu (Akarana)
Fairplay Team – Wellington Orcas
Player of the Tournament – Fangupo-Paea Fotu (Counties Manukau)
Manager of the Tournament – Tania Harris (Counties Manukau)
Trainer of the Tournament – John Hansen (Akarana Falcons)
Coach of the Tournament – Mike Cudd (Counties Manukau)
Merit Team - Samuel Kamu (Akarana), Nathaneal Sasagi (Akarana), Christian Tuipulotu (Akarana), Christian Ma'anaima (Akarana), Marco Talagi (Counties Manukau), Talitua Salima (Counties Manukau), Brian Lealifano (Counties Manukau), Sam Taunga (Counties Manukau), Etuala Lui (Counties Manukau), Kaya Cuthers (Counties Manukau), Aamon Dean (Counties Manukau), Fangupo-Paea Fotu (Counties Manukau), Caius Faatili (Southern), Leroy Ferguson (Southern), Albert Talakai (Wai-Coa-Bay), Jahkay Roberts (Wai-Coa-Bay), Maui Wallace (Wellington)
(5/6) Wellington Orcas 24 (Tyler Jahnke 2, Mason Lucas, Daniel Mihaere & William Rua tries; Te Aorere Wanoa 2 goals) Wai-Coa-Bay Colts 20 (Lennox Jarratt 2, John Friis & Kobe Rodger tries; Liam Jones 2 goals)
(7/8) Central Vipers 34 (Israel Hape-Moke 2, Saiasi Qiokata, Neihana Johnson, Pawhare Kershaw, Core-Lee Hadfield-Robertson & Emil Vella tries; Jahlon Governor 3 goals) Northern Swords 12 (Tanekaha Ngaropo-Roma, Ngatai Manukau-Togiavalu & Hoani Rogers-Brown tries)
(3/4) Counties Manukau 40 (Alfred Smalley 2, Sione To'a, Etene Nanai Seturo, Nofoasa Malutoa, Sione Ngahe & Kayleb Milne tries; Dylan Tavita 6 goals) Auckland Vulcans 10 (Zalmon Meti-Mata'u & Nathaniel Law tries; Lewis Sio goal)
(final) Akarana Falcons 44 (Mathew Timoko 2, Carlos Henry, Vito Tevaga, Jonty Timoti, Sean Mullany, Elijah Sufia & Ranaperi Baker tries; Regan McClennan 6 goals) South Island Scorpions 6 (Jordan Leigh try; Brad Campbell goal)
Winners – Akarana Falcons
Runners-up – South Island Scorpions
Final MVP – Matt Timoko (Akarana)
Fairplay Team – Wai-Coa-Bay Colts
Player of the Tournament – Jordan Leigh (South Island)
Manager of the Tournament – Marty Brown (Northern)
Trainer of the Tournament – Nick Le Comte (South Island)
Coach of the Tournament – Tai Arona (South Island)
Merit Team - Starford Toa (Akarana), Carlos Henry (Akarana), Vito Tevaga (Akarana), Matthew Timoko (Akarana), Regan McClennan (Akarana), Sean Mullany (Akarana), Javvier Pitovao (Akarana), Lewis Afeaki (Akarana), Alfred Smalley (Counties Manukau), Samiuela Lauhingoa (Counties Manukau), Kayleb Milne (Counties Manukau), Phillip Makatoa (Counties Manukau), Etene Nanai-Seturo (Counties Manukau), Jahlon Governor (Mid Central), Wesley Veikoso (Mid Central), Cruz Topai-Aveai (Southern), Jordan Leigh (Southern)
Southern Cross Campus and Onehunga High School showed their poise under pressure to take out a couple of cracking finals at the 2016 NZRL National Secondary Schools Tournament.
For the South Aucklanders, their 16-12 win over Kelston Boys High School represented their first title, after several years of finishing close, without quite achieving the ultimate prize.
Kelston took an early lead with a penalty goal, but their rivals scored the first try, through Siave Togoiu, and added a second to Samiuela Fisitaila after the break to lead 10-2.
Kelston weren’t done though, edging ahead 12-10 with two quick tries to Sale Savelio and Kadiaye Ioka, one converted by fullback Jahziahs Adams. Suddenly, they seemed on course for their fourth title and third in the space of four years.
But Southern Cross dug deeper, laying a platform for tournament MVP Kokai Togoiu to scramble over next to the posts and then convert. Moments later, the final siren sent the team and supporters into wild celebrations.
“It was just about our players believing in themselves, believing in the systems that we’d put in place and keeping the faith,” said coach Rod Ratu.
“There was some déjà vu … we had to come from behind against Tokoroa in pool play and St Paul’s yesterday. Quietly, the boys were confident, they didn’t panic and knew once they got down there, they’d be able to finish it.
“For Kakoi and his brother and their family, it was a special moment for them all. There’s obviously a big future in the game for those boys and we’ll be there to support them.”
Southern Cross hooker Samiuela Lauhingoa was named MVP of the final.
Earlier, Onehunga stormed home over the closing minutes to snatch a dramatic 21-20 win over Tai Wananga in the development final.
The joint Hamilton/Palmerston North entry, who had beaten their rivals earlier in pool play, stormed out to a quick 14-0 lead and seemed well in control with a 20-6 margin soon after half-time.
But Onehunga regained their composure as the clock counted down, running in three tries to Mauri Bell, John Kaifa and Michael Lemafa, one converted, to tie the scores at 20-20.
Then, with barely a minute remaining, they sealed the victory with a dropped goal from in front of the posts by Trevor Marurai.
“It was a good final,” said Onehunga coach Chris Ofanoa. “Tai Wananga came and did their thing, especially in the first half.
“For the second half, I had to give a pretty harsh team talk to our boys, give them a boot up the [backsides] and they fought back.
“The boys were not sticking to their structure, what we had practised all week, and I knew at half-time, I just had to tell them to stick to our structure.
“I think they came out, saw the TV cameras and lights, and it was white-line fever for everyone.”
Lemafa was named Most Valuable Player of the development final.
NZRL National Secondary Schools Tournament
Bruce Pulman Park, Papakura
Friday, September 2
St Thomas of Canterbury 22 Manukura School 4, Papatoetoe 34 Aranui HS 16, Mt Albert Grammar 24 Otahuhu College 14, Wesley College 40 Avondale College 24, Manurewa HS 18 Aorere College 10, Tamaki College 22 Tokoroa HS 20, Westlake BHS 32 St Paul’s College, Southern Cross Campus 16 Kelston BHS 12 (final)
Mt Roskill Grammar 36 Papakura HS 12, Trident HS 14 Sir Edmund Hillary College 10, Onehunga HS 21 Tai Wananga 20 (final)
College Sport Media is dedicated to telling the story of successful young sportspeople in New Zealand