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Hurricanes' youngest ever back ready for the next step in 2023

By Adam Julian
(Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

There was nobody more relieved than TJ Perenara when Northern United, known won the Jubilee Cup, Wellington’s Premier rugby club competition, on July 23.

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In the 53rd minute of the final the veteran All Black halfback threw an errant pass which was intercepted by Riley Higgins.

The Petone second-five, barely of legal drinking age, strode 50-metres unopposed to put his side into an 18-15 lead which promptly became two more with a conversion so easy a civil defence siren would struggle to interrupt.

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It was Higgins second try of the game and was scored in front of his uncle Richard, a member of the Norths’ coaching staff.

Norths with two All Blacks, two M?ori All Blacks and more than 200 first class games combined then their gritty opposition, eventually prevailed 23-20.

Had the ‘Villagers’ stayed ahead the Perenara blemish might have made the network news. At least it would have done the rounds on social media. Worse, TJ would have had to put up with the radiant smiling, cheeky youngster reminding him of his folly at Wellington Lions and Hurricanes practices.

Riley Higgins appears set for a long future in professional rugby. From good stock he is grounded, hungry for success, quick to learn, and unafraid of those with bigger reputations.

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“The emotions were pretty high that day because of the occasion and my family history,” Higgins told RugbyPass.

“I used to play for Norths. My brother Kienan won a Jubilee Cup with them in 2019 and my dad Scott was a stalwart of the club.

“I knew it was going to be a tough game, but we took the challenge on against great players like TJ, Losi Filipo, Du’ Plessis Kilifi and Jackson Garden-Bachop.”

Higgins has scored 21 tries in 15 appearances for Petone. He’s unlikely to feature for his club again for some time.

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In October the 20-year-old was contracted to the Hurricanes having already appeared for the franchise off the bench in their 67-5 win over Fijian Dura in Super Rugby Aotearoa on May 8.

He was the 50th player used in the Covid riddled 2022 season and the youngest back ever selected for the Hurricanes.

“It was cool debuting for the Hurricanes when I didn’t expect it. Although it was only for a couple minutes, and I got a yellow card, it was cool to see all my family and lots of friends there.

“On my jersey I was able to wear my Mum’s name, Babette.”

Higgins lost his father Scott in 2014. Scott was deeply immersed in rugby where Riley has been ever present in Wellington representative sides.

“Dad was my biggest critic. He taught me so much; lessons I use every day. Everywhere I go he comes to,” Higgins said.

Riley attended St Patrick’s College, Silverstream where he was in the First XV for three seasons.

In 2018 Silverstream won the Wellington Premiership title and 16 of 18 games overall. By 2020 he was unstoppable scoring 17 tries in 12 games and earning selection for the New Zealand Secondary Schools.

His Wellington Lions debut was on August 7, 2022 and showcased real promise when he scored two tries in a 37-35 win over Bay of Plenty. He was the first Wellington player to score a brace on debut since Tajhon Mailata against Manawatu in 2010.

However, the Lions imploded in their next two games, smashed by Canterbury 43-10 and held try-less in an embarrassing 15-6 loss to Northland. A team “honesty session” quickly turned things around.

“The biggest thing I learned were all the lessons from other players and coaches. I was a bit of a sponge soaking up all the words and wisdom from the likes of Tamati Ellison, Peter Umaga-Jensen and Billy Proctor,” Higgins said.

“I think the biggest adjustment to my game I’ve had to make is around positioning, understanding, and timing on defence. It’s quite different at a higher level.”

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On September 17 Wellington won the Ranfurly Shield for the first time since 2009 with a gritty 19-12 victory over Hawke’s Bay in Napier. Higgins ran the water that night, but the ‘Log of Wood’ carrot drove Higgins to greater heights.

“Seeing the reactions of the boys when they won the Shield was awesome. It’s such a great old trophy. Our first defence was against Waikato who were top of the table at the time. I was stoked to get the start. I got man-of-the-match and we won which was an awesome highlight.”

Higgins wouldn’t be usurped as a starter for the rest of the season. In the record 54-19 crushing of Auckland in the semi-final he scored two tries.

Wellington faced perennial winners Canterbury in Christchurch in the Premiership final. Wellington was on a nine-match winning streak but had lost nine consecutive Premiership finals since 2003. Higgins was unphased by the wretched history.

“A hostile crowd down in Canterbury made it even better,” Higgins laughed.

“We knew it was going to be a back and forth game, but I feel like our game drivers put us in the right end of the field and our set piece went really well.

“Some players like Ruben Love and Asafo Aumua had big moments in that game which made the difference in the end and everyone else just did their job. Defence was a standout for us and that’s down to the players soaking everything up from Tamati Ellison.

“I’m still annoyed that Peter Lakai stepped in front of everyone to take the final kick to touch to end the game, but it was funny, and I hugged him straight away.”

Lakai and Higgins played together in the Jubilee Cup final and had lost two Wellington Premiership finals for St Patrick’s College, Silverstream in 2019 and 2020.

Wellington’s 26-18 success over Canterbury was their first NPC Premiership title win since 2000. Between 1986 and 1987 they won 18 consecutive matches.

Higgins is hoping to bring the winning formula to the Hurricanes in 2023.

“Even though I grew up in Christchurch, I was born in Palmerston North and I have always supported the Hurricanes, so it’s a great feeling to be here,” Higgins said.

“I think last year, the NDC (National Development Contract) was a great stepping stone into the professional environment, but I am definitely excited to finally get a proper contract with the Hurricanes.”

 

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