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New Zealand U20s first five Rico Simpson has a habit of beating Australia

By Adam Julian
Rico Simpson of New Zealand in action during The Rugby Championship U20 Round 3 match between Australia and New Zealand at Sunshine Coast Stadium on May 12, 2024 in Sunshine Coast, Australia. (Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

When Rico Simpson helped Auckland East beat Auckland West in the 2018 Roller Mills National Intermediate championship, he was told by many older spectators his play resembled that of champion Australian first-five Stephen Larkham.


“I knew of him though I hadn’t seen him play. It was intriguing. We’re two lanky dudes similar in the way we run. If I can half the career Stephen had I’ll be a happy man,” Simpson told RugbyPass.

Ironically Simpson has proved an age group conquer of Australia.

In 2023 he was a dominant figure in the New Zealand Secondary Schools 34-3 and 57-36 successes over Australia. Across the two matches in Canberra, he kicked ten conversations and three penalties.

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In the inaugural Rugby Championship Under-20 Tournament on the Sunshine Coast in May, Simpson helped New Zealand win the tourney unbeaten.

Against South Africa, Simpson threw both passes that led to Stanley Solomon and Frank Vaenuku tries in a 13-13 draw.

He landed six goals from six attempts in a 43-20 hiding against Argentina. Against Australia, he converted three tries and was pivotal in a 36-25 victory before being harshly sin-binned.

“The weather played a big part in that first game against South Africa. It properly suited the way they play the game, a slow style built around set piece,” Simpson said.


“When I came on, I wanted to speed things up and get the ball more to the edge. That wasn’t easy but I’ve been practising long passes since I was a kid. To have a couple come off was nice.

“Some other players I admire are Jordie Barrett and Stephen Perofeta. I’ve been working with Stephen a little bit at the Blues. It’s crazy how good he is at controlling the game and opening things up on attack.

“Against Argentina, we wanted to unlock our game. Play to our shape more and establish an identity.

“We knew Australia would be a tough game. They play similarly to us. Bringing the physicality and nailing our carry and clean was key in that game.”


In the 68th minute, while down 19-25 against Australia, Simpson got a clean-out wrong. He was yellow carded under the banning of the ‘crocodile roll’ – the act of twisting a defending player off their feet in the tackle area.

“We talked about it beforehand but because it was a new law we didn’t have a huge guide. Besides, I don’t make a living cleaning out rucks,” Simpson laughed.

“The guy behind me went to clean out and I fell forward. I was going to roll out, but I landed awkwardly on my knee and got stuck. When I went to wriggle out the Aussie player got crocodile rolled.

“The boys were awesome in that last ten minutes without me. The plan was to stay out on the field, but we had planned for the unexpected.”

The oldest of three boys, Simpson was born in Whakatane. He didn’t expect to relocate to Auckland, but his parents were ambitious. Father Shaun graduated from sweeping floors in a factory to running his cabinet-making business. Mum Leah runs a beauty salon.

Simpson was educated at St Mary’s School in Papakura which is a pathway to Sacred Heart College.

Simpson debuted for the fabled Sacred Heart First XV during the Covid-riddled season of 2021. In 2022 Sacred Heart made the semis and were narrowly beaten by eventual champions Kelston Boys’ High School.

The narrow defeat was a familiar tale of woe for Sacred Heart. Despite a culture that salivates for the oval ball, and legends such as Sean Fitzpatrick, Kieran Crowley, Craig “Postie” Innes and Nili Latu having passed through, Sacred Heart had gone 58 years without winning the 1A championship.

Sacred Heart finished second in 1966, 1967, 1970 and 1971. Sacred Heart was the only team to twice conquer Auckland Grammar School when Sir Graham Henry was cutting his teeth there. Between 1975 and 1980, “Ted” won 92 of 101 games as head coach of the Lions.

Again, in 1995 and 1996, Sacred Heart beat national champions Kelston Boys’ High School but still couldn’t nab a title. In 2011 Sacred Heart beat every team in 1A but stumbled in the semis to Kelston, who charged on to win the National Top Four. Except for 2013, semi-appearances followed every season until 2019 with the 2016 and 2017 finals lost.

“We had a strong pre-season. In our first 1A game beat King’s College 58-22. We talked about embracing the challenge of the cruise rather than shying away from it. It’s plenty of motivation, right?

“The game I thought everything clicked was against De La Salle College. They were a strong side and came back at us hard. Then we put a whole lot of points on them, and I thought wow this feels good.”

Simpson scored 18 points in the King’s College slaughter and the 43-25 Da La Salle victory.

The only side to beat Sacred Heart en route to the 1A final was their opponent St Kentigern College.

More than 6000 people turned up at the Waitemata Rugby Club to watch the decider.

Sacred Heart fell behind 10-0 before a slashing break by Simpson set up the first of two tries for halfback Sione Finau. The incident was the catalyst for Simpson to take control.

The New Zealand Herald reported:

“This was the Simpson show… Two minutes before the interval, Sacred’s talisman nimbly danced through congestion to dot down under the sticks and make it 24-10.”

“I looked up and the prop had taken the blindside. I thought I’d snoop down there. I was looking for the offload, but the gap widened,” Simpson said.

“It was a pretty emotional game. Our loss to them in the round-robin taught us heaps about how they played and how we wanted to play.

“The coaches encouraged us to take ownership of the game plan, and to be unafraid to have a crack.”

Sacred Heart won 39-29 with Simpson contributing 19 points.  The New Zealand Herald captured the emotion.

Rico Simpson of Sacred Heart celebrates on full time during the 1st XV Final between St Kentigern and Sacred Heart at Waitakere Rugby Club on August 19, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

“On the sidelines, weather-beaten Sacred Heart old boys – many of them not even born the last time there were such celebrations – wept openly after years of heartbreak, hurt and frustration.”

“My first emotion was relief. There was a lot of expectation and the boys delivered,” Simpson said.

“I was quite emotional when Matt Grace, who has sons in the team and was on our Rugby committee hugged me in tears. Matt is pretty staunch. Seeing how much it meant to him was pretty special.”

In April Kelson Butler (1983 Head Prefect) released a film entitled, Sacred, A Rugby Story for the Ages about Sacred Heart’s win.

Simpson hopes to create more highlights at the World Under 20 Championships which start in South Africa on June 29. New Zealand is grouped with Wales, Spain and three-time defending champions France.

“I can’t wait for South Africa. The boys have a connection camp in June before the final squad is picked. I thought we grew a lot in Australia,” Simpson said.

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