The inaugural edition of the Super Rugby Aotearoa U20 competition kicked-off with a bang on Sunday as the Chiefs, Highlanders and Crusaders youth sides all picked up victories in their first-up matches.
All five of New Zealand’s Super Rugby franchises, and a composite New Zealand Barbarians side, congregated at Owen Delany Park in Taupo to open the new week-long tournament that will continue through to this coming Sunday.
The competition is designed to showcase the future stars of New Zealand rugby while representing their respective franchises, and many youngsters have already set the tournament alight with their displays over the weekend.
The first match of the campaign saw the Chiefs U20 side pitted against the Hurricanes U20 team in a contest that featured a handful of players who already have first-class experience at senior provincial level.
Among those were Chiefs midfielder Gideon Wrampling, who was a regular for Waikato in last year’s Mitre 10 Cup and opened the scoring for the Hamilton-based franchise with a sneakily taken try from close range inside the opening seven minutes.
Despite the rain-sodden conditions, the Chiefs doubled down on their early first half lead when first-five Lucas Cashmore found lock Scott Jury with a crisp flat ball to allow the second rower to pierce the Hurricanes’ defensive line and score under the posts.
Both sides then bagged a try apiece through Hurricanes openside flanker Peter Lakai and Chiefs blindside flanker Nikora Broughton before star Hurricanes midfielder Riley Higgins entered the fray to kickstart an impressive outing by the youngster.
The 2020 New Zealand Schools representative looked to have pounced on a lineout overthrow by Chiefs’ as he fended off Cashmore and dragged Wrampling with him over the line to seemingly score, but his effort was ruled out by a knock on called by the officials.
Just two minutes later, however, the Hurricanes were back knocking on the door of the Chiefs’ line as they were handed a scrum five metres out.
Some patience and persistence then enabled No 8 Dominic Ropati to go over after he received a well-placed double skip pass from highly-touted first-five Aidan Morgan, who has trained with the senior Hurricanes side this season.
A pair of penalties from Cashmore ensured the Chiefs took a healthy 25-12 lead into the half-time break, but the Hurricanes struck back early in the second half as exciting fullback Harry Godfrey burst into action with a scintillating counter-attack to send Higgins over for a try.
Reserve hooker Ioane Moananu and wing Tevita Ofa then punished some lacklustre defending by the Hurricanes as the latter seared past five defenders to extend the Chiefs’ lead after a storming run down the sideline by the former.
The exploits of Damian McKenzie have been on full show in recent weeks during what’s best described as a remarkable turnaround for the Chiefs.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 12, 2021
Just after the hour mark, Higgins found himself back in the thick of things as he burst upfield in a 40-metre run through the middle of the park against a disjointed Chiefs defence.
Some ill-discipline by the Chiefs at the breakdown in their bid to quash the Hurricanes’ onslaught allowed Higgins the chance to tap and go 10 metres from the tryline.
The midfielder’s quick-thinking paid dividends as he swiftly caught out the back-peddling defenders to slide over for his second try of the afternoon.
Higgins proved to be a persistent threat throughout the contest as he worked well in tandem with Morgan and Godfrey to constantly cause headaches for the Chiefs’ defence.
That much was evident when he burst through for another clean break in the 67th minute to nearly set up a 60-metre try for his midfield partner Kyle Brown, but the centre couldn’t hang onto the slippery pill on the left-hand touchline.
That ended up being the Hurricanes’ last scoring chance as reserve first-five Josh Jacomb added a try and a penalty in the final seven minutes to hand the Chiefs a 40-26 win.
Next up was the Highlanders U20 side, who had no mercy for the New Zealand Barbarians U20 team as they put their counterparts to the sword in a 70-17 thrashing.
Played in slightly better conditions, the Highlanders were led by flanker and captain Sean Withy, a member of Otago’s Mitre 10 Cup squad last year, who crossed over for a hat-trick as his side scored a total of 10 tries.
First-five Cameron Millar was another to standout as he knocked over all 10 of his conversion attempts and scored a try open his campaign with a 25-point haul.
Other try-scorers included halfback Nathan Hastie, midfielder Jermaine Pepe, wing Peceli Malanicagi, hooker Harry Press, No 8 Arese Poliko and reserve hooker Harry Hansen.
The Barbarians weren’t helped by a red card shown to reserve halfback Joel Lam 11 minutes from full-time for striking a player with his knee, although the invitational team did cross for two tries of their own via prop Troy McIvor and ex-New Zealand Schools No 8 George Methven.
The match also allowed the likes of Otago Mitre 10 Cup midfielder Giovanni Leituala and 2020 New Zealand Schools trio Noah Hotham, Rohan Wingham and Methven to feature for the Highlanders.
The trio should all play important roles on Wednesday when the franchise’s youth side faces a much sterner test in the form of the Hurricanes U20.
After beating the Highlanders in golden point on Saturday, the Chiefs are third on the Super Rugby Aotearoa ladder and just two competition points behind the Blues. #superrugbyaotearoa https://t.co/QRoeYFSmnT
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 12, 2021
Meanwhile, in the final match of the day, a strong Crusaders U20 side notched a 34-24 victory over the Blues U20 team.
Both sides boasted Super Rugby-contracted players – the Crusaders had Chay Fihaki, who debuted against the Highlanders in February, at second-five, while the Blues had senior squad members Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens and Soane Vikena at fullback and hooker, respectively.
Led by German-born captain and Tasman Mako loose forward Anton Segner, it was the Crusaders who drew first blood through two penalty goals by 2019 New Zealand Schools first-five Ollie Lewis.
A slew of penalties against the Crusaders cost them just past the quarter of an hour mark, though, as the Blues were handed a penalty try while tighthead prop Seb Calder was sent to the sin bin for an infringement at a scrum.
That, however, didn’t stop the Crusaders hitting back immediately afterwards through left wing Macca Springer, who ran a good support line as hooker George Bell showed a clean pair of heels to break into the Blues’ 22.
A good head-up play by Blues and 2019 New Zealand Schools halfback Manu Paea from a penalty deep inside Crusaders territory edged the Auckland side into the lead, but two further penalties by Lewis gave the Crusaders a 17-14 lead at half-time.
Blues first-five Jock McKenzie scraped his way over the line after his forward pack muscled up at scrum time to leave the Crusaders’ defence at sixes and sevens shortly after the break, but that proved to be the last time the Aucklanders would lead.
Back-to-back tries to flanker Corey Kellow and Bell, both of which were converted, and a long range penalty by Fihaki, was enough to cancel out a late Vikena try from a rolling maul to put the Crusaders U20 in the winners’ circle.
The Christchurch-based side will continue their campaign against the Chiefs U20 on Wednesday, while the Blues U20 will square off against the Barbarians U20.
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