The Southland under-18 Mixed touch team capped off a remarkable performance to claim the silver medal at the Youth National Touch Championships held in Auckland over the weekend.
Southland got off to a great start with a last gasp try on the hooter to beat Whanganui 7-6. Strong wins over Horowhenua Kapiti and Nelson left them unbeaten after day one. A tight loss to Thames Valley on day two left the southerners needing to win their remaining two games to qualify for the semi-finals.
A 15-2 win over Te Tai Tokerau B set the stage for a virtual quarter final against heavyweights Auckland who had won the grade twice in the past three years. In what was one was of more outstanding performances from a Southland team at a national tournament in recent years they got the better of their much-fancied rivals claiming a 210-7 win and booking a semi-final with 2019 champions Bay of Plenty.
Southland got off to a great start pulling out to a 6-3 lead before Bay of Plenty clawed their way back to level the scores with seven minutes remaining. But the young Southland team kept their composure and managed to finish with two tries in the final minutes to claim a historic 8-6 win and earn their spot in the final against Te Tai Tokerau.
In what was a closely thought final Southland took a while to get going but clawed their way back to go into halftime at 2-all.
It was back and forth action in the second half with both teams trading tries. It appeared Southland had taken the lead with under five minutes to go with a try to Archie Body, however his try was later disallowed due to a previous forward pass. The momentum shifted to the northerners, who managed to take their chances in the last few minutes to win 8-5.
What makes Southland’s silver medal more remarkable is the fact they had very little in terms of lead up games to the tournament, the best they could do was running against the Southland U16 Mixed team at practises throughout January. With the closest under-18 mixed teams in the country being Marlborough and Nelson finding quality game time is always a challenge for Southland in comparison to their north island rivals who have the luxury of playing in tournaments most weekends in the lead up to the Nationals.
Captain Lochie Earland led from the front throughout the weekend both on attack and defence, himself and James Hargest student Madison Grieve topped the try count with 10 a piece across the three days.
Wakatipu High Schools’ George Reedy proved a handful for opposition defences while Southland Girls’ High Schools’ Tia Fowle and Central Southland College student Riley Ballantyne both had outstanding tournaments, Southlands female contingent definitely the strongest on show across the 13 teams competing in the under-18 Mixed grade.
Southland under-16 Mixed also hopped back on the plane with some silverware after claiming the plate title to finish fifth in a hotly contested grade which featured 15 provinces.
A strong 12-4 win first up against Te Tai Tokerau the team had close losses to Manawatu and Marlborough along with a tight win over rivals Otago to leave them in must-win territory on day two.
A 7-6 win over Counties set up a showdown with eventual winners Bay of Plenty. An 8-3 loss left Southland to playoff for the plate title. They came out firing in the plate semi-final against Taranaki pulling away for a 7-5 win and setting up a rematch with Marlborough for the plate.
Southland probably saved their best for last putting in a quality 30 minutes to take a 7-4 win and bring home the plate plaque.
Rico Fisher & Rico Muliaina led from the front for Southland creating plenty of opportunities on attack. Abbie Middlemass out of Southland Girls’ High School playing in her first national tournament was outstanding throughout in a great all-round display.
Southland will be back in action at the Open Nationals in Christchurch in early March when the U21 Women’s’ team head north to take part in the Open Women’s’ grade.