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Moves afoot for U85kg Competition in Canterbury

By Adam Julian

What do Canterbury and All Blacks legends Sir John Graham, Sir Wayne Smith, and Warwick Taylor all have in common? All three were Under 85kg. With some strict dieting, it wouldn’t take long for Andrew Mehrtens, Sevu Reece, and Will Jordan to drop to 85kg.

It's perhaps a little surprising then that Canterbury has no organised Under-85kg competition. 

Crusaders country consistently produces champions, irrespective of size, and on Saturday High School Old Boys became the latest success story when the Light Bears trounced Takapuna Bombers 45-17 in the National final at North Harbour Stadium.

Captain Jarred Percival has been around. A veteran of 160 premier games he's played for Mid Canterbury, the New Zealand Heartland XV, and professionally in Italy where he barely escaped Covid lockdown. He rates Saturday’s triumph as among his top rugby highlights.

"You can't underestimate what this win means for the boys and the club. It's a huge achievement and good footy, " Percival said.

"It's hard to compete when you're not a heavyweight. This competition has given smaller players a forum to express themselves without the fear of getting absolutely smashed. The footy is fast, skillful, and tough, and has retained the social aspects of the game which are so enjoyable.

"I can see a time in the future when you have international competition. Rugby has a huge following in Sri Lanka but they're not big people. Imagine the Japanese team."

A serious showcase for smaller athletes, coupled with some social frivolity, is a universal appeal of U85kg rugby. Former All Blacks halfback Brad Weber is an outspoken fan while Kasey Joe-McIndoe is a good example of the enduring and ongoing appeal of U85kg rugby.

Joe-McIndoe was an openside flanker in a strong St Patrick’s College Silverstream First XV that produced two international front rowers, Asafo Aumua and Joe Apikotoa as well as All Blacks Sevens flyers Daniel Schrijvers and Salesi Rayasi.

A relatively small Joe-McIndoe suffered injury early in the season and struggled to regain his place in the competitive side when he recovered. Disillusioned, he briefly quit rugby before Eastbourne persuaded him to join their U85kg team.

“I loved Eastbourne straight away. The rugby was competitive, but the players weren’t their to outdo each other or get a professional contract. It was very pure,” Joe-McIndoe said.

“In 2018 I left Wellington to work in Auckland. I thought my rugby career was all over, but I joined the Ponsonby Hustlers and have been there ever since. This year we won the Auckland championship, and I was in the reps. If it wasn’t for this grade I would have stopped playing. I wanted something serious without the pressure and heavy hits of prems.”

So, what are the prospects of Canterbury U85kg competition in 2024?

Georgia Calder-Lee is the Metro Operations Coordinator for Canterbury Rugby. Her role is to oversee the organisation of competitions by establishing draws, keeping on top of player registrations, and liaising with clubs to clarify rules and regulations and grow numbers. She was delighted with the success of High School Old Boys. Their triumph will help accelerate the inevitable arrival of organised U85kg competition in Canterbury.

“It was pretty cool to see High School Old Boys do so well. The number of Canterbury teams in Nationals has doubled since the first year and High School Old Boys have been supporters from day one so good on them,” Calder-Lee said.

A survey taken at the end of the premier season addresses questions about the state of rugby in the Metro area. More than 80 responses sought the development of a U85kg competition. Calder-Lee was somewhat surprised by the fervent feedback, but it aligns with the Canterbury rugby strategy of “keeping people of all sizes in the game by opening new pathways.”

An Under 18 U75kg competition with five teams proved popular at the high school level. Some clubs in the 14-team Premier Colts indicated a preference for U85kg rugby with a large gap between the strongest and weakest teams. The ambitions of Colts players vary from those committed to becoming professionals to those only wanting to play socially.

“The good thing about weight-restricted grades is that they cater more easily to the diverse reasons people play the game. The feedback we’ve received indicates a real will for U85kg competition,” Calder-Lee said.

Calder-Lee indicated six teams would be an ideal starting point from which to launch but that number is not sacrosanct.

“We’re in the process of working through the logistics of what a competition would look like. We’re open-minded about combined clubs, numbers of teams, and competition format,” she said.