Twelve of the country’s leading rugby schools will descend on Palmerston North at the end of this week for the NZ Barbarians National 1st XV Championships (Top 4).
Southland Girls’ High School will take the field for the girls tournament for the seventh straight year - the only school to appear in all seven. So far, they have made the final three times and they won the title in 2016.
Southland’s captain is year 13 loose forward Bree Thomas, who will be attending her fifth straight Top 4 tournament.
“I went up to the Top 4 in year 9 as a reserve and have played in the four tournaments we have attended since,” says Bree, whose older brother Flynn is the New Zealand U20s and Southland Stags hooker and a past Top 4 player for Southland Boys’ High School.
“I think there will be two or three of us in the team that have been to the top 4 each year since year 10 in 2015, and several of us who were in the team that won in 2016.
“But this year it is quite a new team and we have quite a few players that haven’t been to the top 4 before, so it will be a good experience for our side.”
Southland also had an U15 team at the 2017 Condor Sevens, so a few of those players have come through to the 15s team. Southland GHS are also regular contenders at the senior Condors in Auckland in December.
Plus players from other codes. Southland GHS has traditionally been strong at Touch. “We have got a few Touch players in the team. There are a few netballers as well – we are able to work around girls jumping on planes. They might get to the Top 4 a bit later but it should all work in.”
In 2016, Southland GHS beat Wellington’s St Mary’s College 46-29 to win their maiden national title, after racing to a 22-0 lead in as many minutes. Centre Alena Saili scored a hat-trick in that final. Saili recently debuted for the Black Ferns against Australia. Current players and now year 13s, lock Libby Napier and No. 8 Emma Dermody, were also standouts that day.
Last year, Southland GHS faced 2014 and 2015 winners Hamilton Girls’ High School in their semi-final on Friday. It was close early, but Hamilton blew the game open just before halftime and went on to win 51-12.
“We went into that game with a positive mindset, but they were a pretty slick side and on defence they were hard to crack,” says Bree.
What has Southland learnt from last year?
“I think this year we have gone back to basics. We are probably not the biggest side there, we have to be better at the things that require a lot of skill and effort.”
Southland GHS recently took out the local six-team secondary schoolgirls Southland competition.
“It’s definitely not the level of competition that you see at the Top 4, which is a jump up in the skill level and intensity, but is valuable for us and for the growth of the game in general. We value the challenging games that we do get, and see how we react to tough situations and what we need to work on.”
There is a women’s 10s club rugby competition as well, which a couple of Southland GHS players were involved in.
Following the local season, Southland beat Otago Girls’ High School 53-36 in the Highlanders final and then defeated Canterbury UC Cup winners Christchurch Girls’ High School 39-0 in the South Island final and Top 4 qualifier.
Southland had to show character in both these wins. Against Otago GHS, they skipped out to an early 17-0 lead and then Otago came roaring back to lead by two points at halftime, before Southland pulled ahead again. The run of play was closer than the final scoreline suggests against Christchurch GHS.
Another key to the ongoing success of the Southland GHS team is the support of parents, who help with travel and logistics as well as sideline support and encouragement.
Southland Girls’ High School Top 4 squad:
Charlotte Anderson, Simone Caughey, Brooke Churstain, Tayla Churstain Kate Cochrane, Emma Dermody, Lanney Dickson, Georgia Ellis, Devon Grey, Lucy Hall, Dayna Hughes, Kristi Kerr, Jessica Lucy, Jaidene Marshall, Libby Napier (VC), Jamie Owen-Gear, Joey Sheppard, Aaliyah Talamahina, Kylah Talamahina, Bree Thomas (C), Shakoia Tonihi, Ryah Tui, Hannah Smith, Kayla Strong, Shianna Templeton (injured).
Management staff: Maima Afutu, Nathan Muir, Tracy Thomas, Mckenzie Smith
The Top 4 trophy
The girls play for the Rugby Girl Hine Pounamu Trophy, which Manukura won off St Mary’s College when they beat them in the recent Hurricanes final. It is re-set at the Top 4 tournament so the winner gets to keep it until their next challenge in 2019.
Hine Pounamu Trophy winners:
2012: Feilding High School
2013: Feilding High School
2014: Hamilton Girls’ High School
2015: Hamilton Girls’ High School
2016: Southland Girls’ High School
2017: St Mary’s College
Watch highlight’s of Southland GHS’s Top 4 win over St Mary’s College in 2016:
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