Christchurch has been the site of seismic change recently and those realities are not only confined to the physical landscape of the city. The coaching, playing and structural foundations of the UC Championship have been shaken considerably.
The top five teams from 2015 all feature new coaches, but some things never change and that is there is an abundance of exciting talent coming through. Here are some names to look out for during the course of the season which kicks off in May.
Zach McKay – The St. Bede’s fullback was the leading try scorer for the 2015 winners scoring 18 times. McKay has searing pace, good anticipation and is sound defensively. He was a Crusaders under-18 rep who has the ability to cover wing. He will be hoping to replicate his cousin Josh McKay’s feat in earning selection for the New Zealand Schools.
McKay says his biggest focus in 2016 is “providing leadership” for a young team and getting “the small things right.” McKay is a gifted attacking player, but wants to improve his kicking game.
Leicester Faingaanuku – The son of Malakai Faingaanuku who represented Tonga at the 1999 World Cup seemed bound for league. He was named MVP of the South Island National Secondary Schools’ Tournament in 2014 and was headed to Christchurch to pursue the sport.
He decided to stay with Union and that was a smart decision. The winger who will most likely play fullback or midfield in 2016 scored eight tries in the UC Championship in 2015 and excelled when given space. He scored a spectacular 80-metre try against Marlborough Boys’ College on Land Rover First XV rugby.
Cam Russell - Burnside High School have improved drastically in the last two years, threatening the semi-finals and knocking over St. Bede’s in 2014.
Russell has been an instrumental in Burnside’s upwards ascent. The openside flanker plays with a maturity beyond his years. A respected captain he represented the Crusaders Knights under-18′s in 2015.
He is adept at winning a turnover and his pace, instincts and support play saw him score nine tries.
Joseph Taipari – Christchurch Boys’ High School have impressed with their free-wheeling style of play in the last two years. They have scored 207 UC Championship tries and Taipari is an exciting attacking threat that could cause opponents consternation.
The New Zealand age-group touch rep has been snapped up by the NRL, but will play rugby in 2016. Swift footwork, quick anticipation and sometimes brazen audacity are the hallmarks of his play. Taipari will play in the backs, most likely at first-five or fullback.
Cruz Topai-Aveia – Shirley Boys’ High School made the final for the first time since 2003 last season. They achieved the rare feat of beating, Christchurch BHS, St. Bede’s and St. Andrew’s in the same season. A big and mobile forward pack who could monster opponents and get a roll on was an instrumental part of their strategy.
No.8 Topai-Aveai will hope to repeat his 2015 form. He scored two blockbuster tries in the 21-20 win over St. Bede’s. A member of the Aranui Eagles league team he has represented Samoa at age group level in league meaning he brings a rounded skill-set to his position in Union.
Ngane Punivai – Christ’s College had a disastrous 2015 and have wiped the slate clean among the coaching staff.
Stephen Dods has been appointed rugby director. Dods spent 15 years at Christchurch Boys’ and witnessed the school win three National championships. Former All Black captain Reuben Thorne, who owns a cafe across the road from the school, will join Canterbury first-five Cameron MacIntyre as First XV coach.
Christ’s likely captain is last year’s leader Ngane Punivai. He was one of the few positives to emerge from the rubble. The powerfully built second-five plays with shrewdness and composure and should push the rep system. His combination with head prefect and first-five Angus Gray will be crucial.
Punivai is a part-time goal kicker. He scored 51 points in the UC Championship in 2015.
Sam Gilbert – St. Andrew’s College won 16 out of 18 games in 2015. They won the National co-education title for a second time and through a curious twist of fate hold the Moascar Cup. One of the biggest reason for their success was their ace goal-kicking.
Fullback Sam Gilbert converted 86% of all his attempts. He scored 138 points alone in the UC Championship (7 tries, 35 conversions, 11 penalties).
Gilbert is not huge in stature, but aside from his kicking prowess he is an elusive runner and smart tactical player.
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