This coming weekend will see the culmination of New Zealand’s college/high school rugby season. The finest boys, girls and co-ed teams will compete for the Top Four Championship in Palmerston North, determining of the champion First XV for the year for the Barbarians Cup.
The Top Four has only been in existence since 1982, when Auckland’s Mt Albert Grammar defeated Oamaru school Waitaki Boys’s High 11-4 in the inaugural final. Before then, teams had only their schedule of local and Traditional inter-school matches. With some playing within their provincial rugby unions under-19 or 21 age grades, so national supremacy was determined by who held the prestigious Moascar Cup.
A trophy that originated as the prize for rugby matches played amongst Army units stationed in Egypt, awaiting their return voyage home after World War I. Featuring a piece of a propeller from a downed German airplane as the mount for the cup, it was won by the New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade team. Then donated to the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZR) who smartly put it to use for secondary school rugby. After an abortive attempt at a knockout competition, it became–and remains–a challenge trophy.
Top Four Championship
However the Moascar Cup moved around the provinces relatively infrequently at first, and decades could pass before a school would be in a position to challenge for it. Worse still, with only a minimum number of challenges required to be accepted each year, some schools would not put the trophy on the line against [alleged] strong rivals.
The Top Four was born largely out of this situation and a desire to recognise the best team in the country each year. Even then, it was an imperfect solution at times, as selection committees were used for many years, leading to otherwise well deserving teams being omitted.
Historically, the championship has been dominated by the bigger traditional boys schools, and usually those from north of the Bombay’s in the greater Auckland region; in the first 16 years only Hawkes Bay Maori school Te Aute (1984) and Gisborne Boys (’88, ’94) were able to wrest it away from the Auckland region.
The Jonah effect
The championship, and indeed college schoolboy rugby as a whole, took on a new profile in the mid-90’s. The catalyst for that was the exploits of a giant Tongan named Jonah Tali Lomu. The teenage sensation, one of several boys and an enthusiastic coach that spearheaded Counties school Wesley College’s 1993 side. Playing then as a number eight loose forward, his rapid rise to stardom soon blossomed as an 18-year old All Black the following year. From there, into immortality for his 1995 Rugby World Cup exploits that showcased the sort of exceptional talent, found at the school level. An amazing star player.
Other future All Blacks have also made their mark at the Top Four championship. The 1998 final was drawn 5-all between Rotorua Boys and Otago Boys. The first time the title was shared–there is no extra time in schoolboy rugby–and there we found a young whippersnapper named Richie McCaw. In scoring Otago’s sole try (Rotorua’s was by another future All Black in Craig Newby) it was the birth of a legend.
All Blacks establish their roots in Top Four
Wesley’s 2001 win was led by Stephen Donald and Sitiveni Sivivatu, while the South Island’s wait to claim an outright title ended with a Colin Slade-led Christchurch Boys taking back-to-back wins in 2005/20006; they had also had a drawn match with Wesley in 2004.
Auckland’s Kelston Boys has won the most titles with five (1989, ’95, ’96, ’99 and 2011), all outright. Wesley have also won five including that shared 2004 title, and lost two other finals. At the other extreme Napier Boys have lost four finals, with just a share of the 2002 title to their credit. That has happened on five occasions: 1998, 2002, ’04, ’08, and ’14 – the title being shared.
Rotorua Boys are the current titleholders having beaten Wellington’s Scots College 36-27 on home turf last year, but interestingly lost out in the Chiefs regional final last weekend, to Hamilton Boys. No matter the school, the feeling is always the same–shear jubilation (see picture, Crusaders regional champions Christchurch Boys)
The process of qualifying for the Top Four has also evolved. The teams that now make it are the champions of their respective regions, aligned along a Super Rugby franchise boundary. The Crusaders and Highlanders regions are combined as the South Island whole region. The four regions operate their own qualification series: a process that is both aided and complicated by the number of inter-regional competitions that currently exist.
The national title is however, only ‘one of three’ Top Four competitions. A parallel tournament for co-educational schools started in 2007, recognising that these often smaller schools are no less deserving of an opportunity–acknowledging that competing on a level-footing with the majority of the well-resourced all boys schools is difficult.
Schools eligible for both; such as Mt Albert Grammar and St Kentigern’s (who won this title twice before switching to focus on the national prize) must declare which competition they will enter in at the beginning season. In the co-ed championship, Christchurch’s St Andrews College is the reigning titleholder.
There is now also a third competition as well, with the growth of the Girls game seeing a tournament added for them in 2012. Feilding High won the first two titles, with Hamilton Girls’ winning each of the past two years.
Palmerston North host Top Four Championship
The format pits the regional winners () into semi-finals on Friday, with the Championship fianl and 3rd/4th playoff games taking place on Sunday.
Friday – Mt Albert Grammar (Blues) vs Southland Boys (South Is.), Hastings Boys (Hurricanes) vs Hamilton Boys (Chiefs)
Friday – Aorere College (Blues) vs Burnside High (South Is.), Feilding High (Hurricanes) vs St Peters, Cambridge (Chiefs)
Friday – Kaipara College (Blues) vs Southland Girls (South Is.), St Mary’s, Wellington (Hurricanes) vs Hamilton Girls (Chiefs)
Full tournament results and all three finals’ match reports will be updated on Monday. Last Word On Rugby wishes all teams competing all the very best.
“Main photo credit”