First XV rugby growing in the local women’s game

By Jared Smith

Growing the seed of women’s rugby can only come from fertile soil, and Whanganui is keen to sow the garden with two schools entering First XV’s in the MRU Premier competition this year.

It will be wall-to-wall footy in the midweek for the Whanganui High School and Cullinane College squads, who will play in the nine-team Manawatu Premier grade on Wednesday afternoons, and then also take part in the WRFU Secondary Schools 10-a-side competition on Thursdays.

WHS and Cullinane met in the final of last year’s 10-a-side competition, also involving City College and Ruapehu College, and the game was a classic – Cullinane coming from 19-0 down to win 24-19.

One of WHS’s try-scorers was the talented Riana Tamati, selected for the 2020 Barbarian Hurricanes Under 18 camp, and now Tamati has stepped up to be the coach of the 2021 squad.

 “Last year we struggled with a 15-a-side team, and barely scrapped through with subs,” she said.

“Now, mostly the team is all new – it’s a bit of a growth year, this year.”

“We’re going to be putting in two 10-a-side teams.”

With 28-30 girls available, Tamati has gone with an even split of the leading players across both WHS sides that will play on Thursdays.

“I didn’t want to do a ‘B’ team because they’re so inexperienced.”

The squad will train on Tuesday’s, their only available afternoon due to games in the next two days and demands of other sports on weekends.

As well as all-rounders who want to give every code a go while at school, Tamati also has players who want to see a clear pathway to higher levels – following the likes of their alumni Holly-Rae Mete, who this week was named in the Manawatu Cyclones extended squad.

Tamati is delighted with the WRFU support in developing the game locally, as well as from the parents and grandparents alike who will make the transport trips to Palmerston North on Wednesday’s.

“We end up leaving at 2pm, get there just after 3pm, and do the warm-ups – it’s a big commitment.

“I couldn’t even imagine us playing XV’s, let alone in the Manawatu competition, just a few years ago.

“The game is growing in Whanganui.”

Cullinane picked up a big 51-5 win in their grading match with WHS last week, and coach Ivan Syme has some big plans for his 29 players in 2021.

Only four Year 13 girls have departed from last year’s squad of 26, of which 17 were Under 15 level.

“Hence the reason we’ve got a good turnover rate.  We’ve got youth on our side,” said Syme.

Last year, as well as MRU 1st XV games, Syme took Cullinane teams to the Hurricanes U15 tournament, the Condor Sevens, and an sports exchange with sister school Marist College from Auckland.

They will enter one squad in the 10-a-side competition, but do rolling subs, and competition for spots in the Wednesday and Thursday lineups is expected to be keen.

“The girls know there’s criteria to meet to make the match day 22,” said Syme.

These include good attendance to both training and class work, and a commitment on Wednesdays that will see them leave Whanganui at 1.45pm and not return until after 7pm.

While Syme expects players to still retain their interest in the ball sports they grew up with like netball and basketball, he has a goal to up-skill the truly committed so that they could be playing Farah Palmer Cup in 3-4 years.

“The whole idea behind the programme is to show all girls’ at the college, the pathways that rugby has to offer for females”

The nine-team MRU Premier Secondary School grade will be played at Ongley Park, with 30 minute halves.

The Top 2 teams will qualify for a straight final, while there will also be a playoff for third/fourth.

Syme said Cullinane’s goal is to reach the Top 4, and push close to making the championship game.