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Preview: U85 National Club Cup Final

The fourth National Under 85kg rugby final between the Takapuna Bombers and High School Old Boys Light Bears is a study of contrasts. 

Representing North Harbour, the Bombers have a storied history in organised U85kg competition with no premier players in the roster and an unblemished 16-0 record this season.

With no organised competition in Canterbury, High School Old Boys Light Bears (Christchurch) have an assortment of players from various grades. The Light Bears have only played five games in 2023 but eliminated the reigning national champions and Auckland's best en route to the decider.

History against novelty, North versus South, the National Under 85kg final kicks off at North Harbour Stadium in Albany on Saturday at 2:05pm.

Takapuna Bombers

Founded: 1934

Colours: Blue & Gold Hoops

Senior Championships: 13 & 2 Gallaher Shields (The most of any Harbour Club). 

Under 85kg Championships: 1985, 1988, 1989, 2013, 2015, 2018, 2022, 2023

All Blacks: 9 (Includes Eric Rush, Glen Osborne, James Parsons, and Karl Tu'inukuafe)

Brayden 'Big Red' Smith wasn't supposed to play rugby again. The Takapuna lock had his leg smashed by a drunk driver as a pedestrian.

Patience, fortitude, and a sense of belonging to the club have helped Smith overcome improbable odds to return to the field after serving as a coach.

Takapuna is the only North Habour club with two Presidents teams while junior numbers are growing, bucking nationwide trends. Smith and his younger brother Daniel (flanker) flat together with Bombers captain Matt O'Brien.

A sense of camaraderie helped the Bombers overcome Wellington champions Old Boys University in a thrilling semi-final in the capital last Saturday. The Scallywags had dedicated their season to fallen teammate Thomas Murray, but Takapuna pulled through 33-30.

"We started slow, a couple of fast tries against us. When we had a few phases we released we could break them down," Brayden said.

"It was a physical game and the end was a bit of a grid. They went 90 meters in seven minutes."

Excluding a miraculous 29-21 victory against Kumeu (the Bombers scoring two converted tries in the last two minutes) perennial rivals Massey were the only other serious challenger for North Harbour supremacy.

Takapuna thumped Massey 39-20 in the local final but their round-robin meeting, which doubled as a Nationals fixture, was anything but easy.

"It was 5-5 at full-time so we went to extra time. Massey had two shots to win it and missed both," O'Brien recalled.

"Jed Bolland is our kicker and he's got a decent nudge, especially with the breeze at his back. He got a penalty from halfway, fifteen in from touch."

Takapuna is coached by Aussie Darren Ephraims, Josh Wendt, and former All Blacks lock Robin Brooke. Sandra Southworth is a selfless and efficient manager. Club President and Treasurer Richard Penberthy won three championships as a coach. He has driven much of the culture around the explosive Bombers.  

Road to the Final

20/5/23 – Beat East Coast Bays (North Harbour), 41-0

1/7/23 – Beat Massey, 8-5 (North Harbour/Extra Time)

19/8/23 – Beat Eden Lizards (Auckland), 30-14

26/8/23 – Beat Patumahoe (Counties), 48-15

9/9/23 – Beat Old Boys University Scallywags (Wellington), 33-30

Players to Watch

Matt O’Brien (No.8) – A model of consistency, the Rosmini College alumni has won three Harbour championships since joining the Bombers in 2018. The engineer and former referee especially enjoys pushover try with ten this season. 

Jackson Ephraims (Halfback) - A complete footballer with the ability to control the game from the base. Distribution, kicking, and running are all part of the package. In 2022 he was selected for the New Zealand U85 Barbarians after his father had to talk him into coming back to play rugby last year. 

Adam (Oscar) Southworth (Fullback) - An 11-year veteran with blistering speed has won five Harbour championships. Winger Jordan Bolland is even quicker having held the New Zealand senior 200 meters sprint title.

Frank ‘Ox’ Fourie (Hooker/Prop) – The South African wears his Springbok undies in each game and plays similarly to a Springbok – busy and bruising. He was supposed to have retired and coached but rumors are rife that he’ll extend his playing career to 2024 in the hope of making the Paris Olympics in Sevens.

High School Old Boys

Founded: 1901

Senior Championships: 21

Colours: White, Blue, Gold & Black

All Blacks: 31 (Including Bruce Deans, DJ Graham, Justin Marshall, Andrew Mehrtens, Daniel Carter)

Fear the Skinny Bear. High School Old Boys are one of the most successful rugby clubs in the country and they've recently caught the Under 85kg bug.

In 2022 they entered a team for the first time in Nationals with little idea or expectation on how they might perform. When they took eventual winners Southern Bush Pigs to extra time, a more determined and coordinated assault was plotted in 2023. 

First-Five Jarred Percival is the captain. The compound wealth adviser has played 160 premier games. Between 2016 and 2018 he made 28 appearances, scoring 259 points, for Mid Canterbury. A New Zealand Heartland XV representative he says U85kg rugby has been among the most rewarding of his career.

"This I'll be better than the World Cup. Fast, skillful, and hard and there won't be all this kicking. I played AFL for New Zealand. If the All Blacks need another kicker I'm available after Saturday," the chipper Percival laughed.

"Personally the best thing about this rugby is I don't get absolutely smashed all the time. The hits are still hard and the effort and skill from the boys are unbelievable.

"Most of our boys are from the Premier Colts so we've had to play midweek to compete. When the Colts made the finals they played five games in nine days or something crazy like that. Tuesday, and Thursday training, a Saturday game, and extras with nationals. It's been a massive shift to get here."

Two convincing victories against Canterbury country clubs set up another showdown with the Southern Bush Pigs. 

A couple of early tries showed the Light Bears weren't overawed by the occasion, and despite the occasional blemish, a 30-17 win represented a resounding success.

The Light Bears lost a player to a red card after 20 minutes of their quarter-final against the University Squids. Last Saturday they spent the best part of an hour tackling Grammar Tech. In the tradition of formidable Canterbury teams, they were clinical and resourceful when chances arose. 

The coaching staff of Jack Hyde and Patrick Coady have installed structure and belief.  Alex Newfield mangers alongside the club's rugby development officer Jamie Livingstone who also oversees the Christchurch Girls' High School First XV. Locally they’ve lost once in nine years. 

"In lieu of FPC requirements, our two Black Ferns Grace Brooker and Renee Holmes are pretty keen to play for us. They love it," Percival said.

Road to the Final

3/5/23 – Prebbleton (Ellesmere & North Canterbury), 55-5

7/6/23 – Waihora (Ellesmere & North Canterbury), 37-7

13/8/23 – Southern Bush Pigs (Otago), 30-17

26/8/23 – University Squids (Auckland), 26-19

9/9/23 – Grammar Tech (Auckland), 20-5

Players to Watch

George Coull (Fullback) - The pint-sized pocket rocket has punched above his weight in 2023 by earning selection for Canterbury B. A major threat with the ball in hand.

Freddie Gibson (Second-Five) - All grit, no glory, the hardnosed second five is a tackle-breaking machine and is renowned for his big hits in midfield. It’s claimed Gibson is the best halfback in Christchurch and should usurp international halfbacks Mitchell Drummond and Willie Heinz in the NPC team.

Josh Purdon (Loose Forward / Lock) - Josh's favourite place is at the bottom of a ruck. He’s a prolific and brutal tackler who’s originally from Auckland so his family will be the bulk of the Light Bears supporters. His father played 100 games for HSOB.

Jon Kilsby (Prop) – An 82kg front row specialist who claims to be a ten stuck in a prop's body. Young, tough, and mobile, Kilsby regularly fronts up against players much bigger than him in open-weight competition.

Past Finals

2020: Eden: 27 v University Squids: 24

2021: Bush Pigs: 32 v Tukapa Bantams: 23

2022: Bush Pigs: 21 v University Debt Collectors: 19

2020: Eden Win The First National Title

The inaugural National final was played at Eden Park in Eden's centenary season where the Premiers won the Gallaher Shield for the first time in their history.

Despite trailing for much of the match the Eden Lizards edged Auckland rivals, University Squids 27-24 in a thriller.

Eden started with verve and aggression but an intercept by University captain Andy Ireland (scooting 40 meters) opened the Squids’ account after four minutes.

Eden responded with a penalty to halfback Tom Barker (12th minute), before a break from first five Ignacio Costa Lidow put wing Max Leanna away to give the Lizards a 10-7 lead after 21 minutes.

Kieran Rooney was yellow carded for Eden for a deliberate knockdown after 35 minutes and the Squids led 17-10 at halftime following a Henry Parker penalty and patient well-constructed try to loosehead prop Bobby Richards.

University extended their lead to 24-10 with 30 minutes remaining when right-wing Charlie Lambert poached an intercept and sprinted 90 meters. 

Eden remained composed and when Ireland was yellow carded in the 52nd minute it was the catalyst for a Lizards resurgence.

Leanna completed his double before a Barker penalty. The winning try was scored by second-five Oliver Roux in the 69th minute.

2021 & 2022: Bush Pigs Go Back to Back

Following on from their 32-23 victory over the Tukapa Bantams (Taranaki) in Inglewood in 2022, Southern Bush Pigs went back-to-back with a 21-19 win over the Auckland University Debt Collectors in Hamilton.

The match was played as a curtain raiser to the All Blacks, Pumas Test.

Centre Josh Buchan, scorer of two tries in the 2022 decider, once again played a starring role. The former New Zealand Secondary Schools fullback scored 16 points.

In greasy conditions, Bush Pigs led by five at halftime, but trailed by a point with six minutes left.

Enter Buchan, who had been the best player on the park, always making yards with the ball and putting in crunching tackles. He kicked a penalty to make it 21-19 but the drama wasn't over. The Bush Pigs would withstand 23 phases of attack by the Debt Collectors to really show their stripes.

Bush Pigs winger Tom Rance scored a cracking try when he pushed past three defenders. Fullback Mackenzie Haugh helped the Southern Magpies win the premier banner in Dunedin and captured an Otago Rugby League championship with the South Pacific Raiders.

Hooker Morgan Jones was magnificent and flanker Mat McCutcheon showed all his physicality and guile. Will Boswell scored a try for the Debt Collectors with James Brosnahan adding a conversion and four penalties.

Bush Pigs second-five Jack Leslie (son of Scottish internationals John Leslie) now plays in the Otago NPC team.