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Wainuiomata High School were beaten finalists in three of the seven years the premier Wellington college rugby league competition was run before this season. Even with the Umaga-Jensen twins they failed to win the top grade.
On Saturday Wainuiomata finally reached the summit in the capital. At Wise Park, Wainuiomata proved too smart for Wellington College winning 24-10.
Tanara Haenga is a prop forward and second rower for the champions. A cheerful and articulate Year 13, Haenga captures the tension beforehand.
"Our warm up was full on. We were each really focussed on our own roles. When the game started we got a case of the butterflies and struggled early," Haenga reflects.
Wellington was equally rattled and Wainuiomata withstood an early physical onslaught before scoring three first-half tries.
"Wellington lost a bit of discipline and we all stepped up. We made the most of our chances and had a good lead at halftime," Haenga says.
In the second-half Wellington threatened to rally, but Wainuiomata held their nerve. Solomona Mapesone bagged a hat-trick and Conan Burt and Levi Wipene also crossed the chalk in a victory which caused palpable relief and excitement.
"I felt so happy. The commitment of the boys was awesome and Stephen Kearney is a legend so to win his trophy is real cool," Haenga enthuses.
"Last year some of the boys had different priorities. Many of them didn't show up to training. A little bit of effort goes a long way," Haenga continues.
Wainuiomata ended the two year unbeaten run of St. Pat’s Silverstream, a key victory in their push to the title.
"That was our hardest game. Silverstream are a really big and dominant team. Beating them gave us a lot of belief," Haenga explains.
Two players in the team are heading to Australia for trials with NRL teams. Montelle Le'Afa is going to the Canberra Raiders and Conan Burt to Brisbane. Wainuiomata enjoys a proud tradition as a league stronghold, with the list of Kiwis from the area including John and David Lomax, David Faiumu and Paul Whatuira. Interestingly another team member Alex Faifai Loa is the cousin of Kiwi Kalifa Faifai Loa.
"It's a big deal for us. There has been a real buzz at school. We are really proud of our achievement. I would like to thank our coaches David Tuari, Donny Maxwell and Moana Kuma who come into school to help us out," Haenga acclaims.
In the winter Haenga was in the First XV rugby team. Individually the hooker enjoyed personal success making the Wellington and New Zealand Maori U18 squads, but his team struggled finishing fifth in Premier Two.
"We find it hard to compete with the city schools. We lose a lot of players, but I love my rugby. I was real surprised to make the Wellington U18's. I love the fact you don't have to count to five every time you have the ball," Haenga laughs.
NZ Secondary Schools have drawn first blood in their two-game series against NSW Combined High Schools, prevailing 22-18 in the opening encounter at Rotorua’s Puketawhero Park.
The home side was never headed throughout, opening up a 10-point margin early in the second half through a try to wing Lewis Soosemea and holding off a strong finish from the visitors.
New Zealand enjoyed an early period of domination, when the Aussies allowed the opening kick-off to bounce into touch. Moments later, five-eighth Neal Tai chased down a kick from Zae Wallace behind the try-line to open the scoring.
Big prop Oregon Kaufusi charged over for a try that was converted to bring NSW level at 6-6, but when the Kiwis scored either side of the break, they had a firm grip on the contest.
Fullback Awatere Kiwara crossed out wide, after second row Jerome Mamea off-loaded on the try-line, for New Zealand to lead 12-6 at half-time. Then Soosemea struck to extend the lead.
Kaufusi proved a handful for the NZ defence throughout the game and could not be stopped close to the line, muscling his way over for a second try.
Wallace sealed the result with a deft little grubber kick, which he regathered to score under the crossbar. The conversion – Wallace’s third of the match – took the margin to double figures again, enough to withstand a third NSW try, this one to lock Mathew Coker.
“It was very tough,” said NZ Secondary Schools coach Moehewa Armstrong. “We expected New South Wales to come out with speed, but then It became a way of attrition.
“We certainly just kept coming at us and in the end, our boys really dug deep. They came in with a unity that they wanted to fight for each other right up to the last minute and that’s what they did, so I’m really proud of them.”
Wallace was nominated by the NSW side as the NZ player of the match, while Kaufusi was adjudged best of the guests.
The two rivals will meet again at 2.30m Saturday on Auckland’s Cornwall Park. Last year, New Zealand rallied from an 18-point half-time deficit to pip the tourists 30-22 in their one-off fixture.
NZ Secondary Schools Selection 22 (Neal Tai, Awatere Kiwara, Lewis Soosemea & Zae Wallace tries; Wallace 3 goals) NSW Combined High Schools 18 (Oregon Kaufusi 2 & Mathew Coker tries; Tom Steadman 3 goals)