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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)