“We always thought we could do it. We have worked hard on our fitness all season and didn’t make the final to finish second,” Tupou Vaai insists when asked if he believed Wesley College could reverse a 28-11 deficit in the Central North Island final on Saturday.
In heavy rain, Wesley fell behind by a huge margin against Feilding High School and it was head prefect and captain Vaai who sparked the improbable comeback with an outstanding individual try midway through the second-half.
“We had the ball about 20-metres out and I took it into contact. I managed to push through a couple of defenders and score under the posts. Suddenly we were losing by ten points and that’s not many,” Vaai recalls.
Wesley’s forward pack spearheaded by the New Zealand Barbarians lock was energised and began to create frequent holes in the visitors’ defence. Vaai describes the next try.
“Our flanker Malupo Ma’afu got it. We did a lot of pick and goes and built pressure and Maatu scored close to the posts. The conversion made it 28-25.”
The clock wasn’t Wesley’s friend, but superior discipline was paramount.
“Feilding gave away a lot of penalties which allowed us to keep the game going. Our lineout was going well and we were mauling them backwards,” Vaai explains.
The last lineout of the game occurred roughly ten metres shy of the Feilding line. Wesley drove, but was unable to pierce through. Vaai captures what happened next with dramatic clarity.
“The maul splintered off into two and we nearly lost the ball. Our halfback Ronan Lawrence picked the right maul to go to, got the ball dummied it and hit a gap. He run about ten meters and scored under the posts. The crowd went crazy. The game wasn’t even over, but they run onto the field to celebrate.”
It wasn’t long until the spectators dispersed from the field were back on celebrating again. Wesley kicked the conversion and the fulltime whistle blew with Wesley 32-28 ahead and anointed Central North Island champions for the first time.
Wesley only joined the competition last year, but hold both the Taine Randall Cup and Rick Francis Memorial Shield. The later accolade was won when Wesley beat St Paul’s Collegiate 29-13, snapping St Paul’s 29-game unbeaten streak in the competition.
“That was a big result for us. We really believed we could win the competition after that game,” Vaai states.
Wesley only lost once after taming St Paul’s and that was narrowly to Feilding. The leadership of Vaai was a big part of changing that result. How does Vaai approach his captaincy?
“You have to front yourself first otherwise you have no respect. I try and do that and then encourage the boys as best I can.”
Vaai led the Chiefs Under-18’s to their first win against the Blues equivalent since 2008 in the term two holidays.
It seems Vaai is a natural leader. The Tongan native is the son of a labourer and chicken factory worker. One of eight children he is now the only boy in his family, but is spurred on by the memory of his late brother Tevita who tragically drowned at the age of four.
“I think about my brother every day. I always try to play for him. I am grateful for everything I have.” Vaai says.
This Saturday Vaai hopes to lead Wesley to victory over Hamilton Boys’ High School in the Chiefs Regional semi-final.
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