On Wednesday March 16th at 8:45 PM the Saint Mary’s Rugby team and their supporters boarded an Air New Zealand flight for Auckland New Zealand. The team looked sharp in their khakis, team shirts and button down sweaters. After landing on Friday March 18th at 6:55 AM we were transported by bus to Rotorua and our Hostel/Hotel arriving after a 13 plus hour plane flight and 4 hour bus ride at 12:30.

Giving the team 30 minutes to put their bags away and get into their practice gear we were on the bus again and headed for New Zealand Sports Academy. There we were met by Jim Love, a former Maori All Black player and coach along with Darrel Shelford also a former Maori All Black. We were given a traditional Maori welcome (”Haere Mai”). They spoke about the proud legacy of Maori people and what it means to be a Maori rugby player. After the introduction we were on the field for a nice 2 hour practice and to work out all the knots from our long journey.

On the practice field Jim and Darryl took the squad through pass/catch drills. There they emphasized a soft non-spin pass and to straighten your running line after receiving the ball. From there we worked on techniques in the contact zone of ball carry/tackler. We finished with backs and forwards working on individual and group skills. The forwards worked on lineouts and the backs concentrated on ball skills and running lines. Jim and Darryl were very helpful and they warned us that we would have our hands full with Ngongotaha RFC.

Saturday was an overcast rainy day. The first game was our “B” side was against the NZ Academy. We didn’t have any first game butterflies and won handily 48-16. The game was refereed beautifully by a 17 year old who happened to be a female. She let the game flow and allowed the players to decide the game. This is the type of refereeing we got to expect at every game. Well almost!!! In the next game Chris McDonell playing scrum half for injured Hold Yungert and Brad Roberts received a penalty from the Ngongotaha referee within the first 10 minutes of the game and marched another 10 for chatting back to him……we thought here we go again. The team played against a very big bruising Men’s team. The rain was upon us and there were some sloppy moments but we went head to head with them. The game was finally put out of reach on the last play by a sensational run by Vili Helu starting inside our half. The final score was 36-22. After showers we gathered in the Ngongotaha Clubhouse to a nice feed and exchange of speeches and shirts between the teams. It was a superb start to the tour.

On Sunday we had an early morning practice and meeting with Jim Love who talked to us about our games. He liked the running rugby we played but emphasized we need to play vertically and get over the tackle line to be successful.  

Then we had the rest of the day off to tour the Rotorua area. A group hopped on the bus lines and went to Matamata and the original Harry Potter Hobbiton Movie set. It remains as seen on the “Lord of the Rings film trilogy.” Another group went with Austen Middleton, who spent 6 weeks here last summer on a tour around town. Another group was entertained at the Skyline Rotorua Luge racing down the mountain in the rain. I am sure everyone enjoyed themselves immensely.

Early the next morning we were headed to Wellington by way of the Rugby Museum in Palmerston North. The stop broke up an 8 hour bus ride. We were able to walk around town, grab a bite to eat before we headed to the museum. It was nice to see an old photo of Pat B. Vincent on display. The man, the legend, lives on. The fact New Zealand is a rugby playing nation going to the museum would be like going to the Cooperstown. It was a very nice experience and I think we all saw how much passion is involved with the Kiwis and their All Blacks.

Arriving in the early evening in Lower Hutt, Wellington we got to our rooms and were ready for practice, again within 30 minutes. We stumbled upon the Hutt RFC down the road from the hotel to practice. We didn’t know it was the arch rivals of Petone RFC our next opponents. It was a captain's’ run and they did ball handling and agility drills finishing off with backs and forwards split until we lost daylight. Next morning we went back to the field and did a pre-game walk-through. Jim Love had told us that the boys in the south were a formidable group and would be tougher than our first match.

We left for the game around 3:45 for the short ride to one of the oldest rugby clubs in Wellington. The games against Petone were not great for them as we beat the U 17’s 40-0 and the Colts 61-0. From the first whistle to the last the boys played running rugby. The after game function was held in their clubhouse with superb pulled pork sandwiches and beverages. The speeches were mc’d by All Black great Andy Leslie who spoke highly of our style of play. Captains and Presidents exchanged shirts and plaques. Andy Leslie finished the speeches by telling the players that they have an open invitation to come down and play for Petone any time they want. The two sides were singing songs late in the evening until some of the older “walking” bosses told us they had to go to work the next morning and we needed to go.

The next morning was a 10:00 session with newly hired Wellington Football Academy (U 20’s) Manager Darren Larsen. As he said now I get paid for something I truly enjoy, one of the nicest guys we met. His session again focused at the breakdown. He talked about clearing the tackler off the ball carrier. He showed us a video and said they employ these techniques from age-grade through the All Blacks. If you don’t win your ball quickly you can’t play at the pace we like to play. Both Darren’s and Jim’s sessions have come at the best time possible for the Gaels.

We then left for an afternoon visit of Wellington. We were dropped off downtown and were on our own to explore the city. There were shops and restaurants on Center Street, the Te Papa museum for everyone to enjoy. Wellington reminded me of San Francisco. It was the most metropolitan city we would visit. It is located like San Francisco on the water and there was a diving platform that some of the kids climb and jumped into the bay, boys will be boys. We left the city at 7:00 that night to get ready for another flight. This time it was a very short one to Christchurch.

We arrived in Christchurch in the late morning and our bus was right there waiting for us. The driver had thought it would be an Irish team because all the paperwork said Irish Rugby Tours. Again we checked into our hotel and gathered shortly after that for a practice atBob Deans Fields at North Hagley Park, home of the High School Old Boys. Imagine walking into the plushest green meadow surrounded by trees in Golden Gate Park! This is where we were. The grass was like a putting green. We did our usual warm up, games of touch, passing drills, rucking technique learned from Jim Love and Darren Larsen and split into forwards and backs to go over our game plan for tomorrow. It would be Good Friday tomorrow and almost everything would be closed. After practice we all went to the mall and grabbed food and beverages for before and after the game.

Friday morning we did a team walk-through at the field which was a 5 minute walk from our hotel. The game started at 1:00. The day was perfect for rugby and we knew the HSOB would be prepared for us. They actually had watched film of us from last year’s Championship match against Life University. The game didn’t start the way we had intended. They scored 2 tries in the first 10 minutes before we could settle down. The HSOB knew where they wanted to attack, how they were going to attack and why they were going to attack, they were a very polished team. After the first 10 minutes we played with them until they scored an easy try off of a lineout where the scrum half walked in untouched from 5 meters out. The second half we came out and brought the fight to them. We scored quickly to make it close but in the end they were just a better team on the day. To a man the players said this was the toughest game they had played. The final was 29-12. The after-game function was at our hotel which was convenient. Speeches, food and some good kiwi hospitality were in order for the afternoon. After the game we set up a little celebration of our own in the adjoining rooms of Christine O’Brien and Mark Bass. There we had pizza and drinks. Some of the HSOB players stayed for our function. It was a good time to reflect on everything that had happened in a short time. The rugby that we were exposed to, be it playing or guest coaches, was phenomenal. Everyone learned a lot and now they know the passion that is needed to be at your greatest.

The next day we had a bus tour of Christchurch. First we went to a bluff that overlooked the city. We saw where the earthquake had decimated the downtown city area. The damage is still visible and may be awhile until it is restored back to normal. Then we went out to Rolleston and watched South Bridge hammer Rolleston. The South Bridge team had at least 5 Fijians on the team and they won 51-3. The next day we had an extra-long practice came back to the hotel , cleaned up, packed and headed for our flight home. Overall it was an outstanding tour. We had rugby 24/7 and the guys loved the fact at any time they could turn on the TV and catch a game. Now we have to take what we have learned and apply it to our game.

Johnny Everett

SMC Rugby Coach, Forwards

Spring Break, March 2016