Westlake Boys High School have been the dominant force in North Harbour Secondary Schools rugby. Tony Vinicombe reviews Westlake’s history in the North Harbour competition.
The formation of the North Harbour Union received a mixed reaction within the North Shore secondary schools. The traditional rugby schools of Westlake, Rosmini and Hato Petera were concerned about the depth and quality of the North Harbour competitions. No longer would there be the intensely competitive matches every Saturday and, of the 64 secondary school teams in the North Harbour Union, 46 were from the three major rugby playing schools. Westlake looked to maintain its links with Auckland schools – King’s, Kelston and Grammar – with annual fixtures, while possibly expecting to dominate and officially confirm their position as the top North Harbour 1st XV by winning in the inaugural year of the competition (1985). As the perceived “top dog”, Westlake would soon become accustomed to the position of having other teams keen to knock them off their perch.
Winners of the ASB Cup in 1985 for the first round competition, Westlake faced Hato Petera in the first game of the top four. A last minute penalty earned Hato Petera a 12-9 win and, with both teams winning their remaining fixtures, Hato Petera finished first and Westlake second. The following season saw a similar pattern. This time, the top four round had both Westlake and Hato Petera winning their first two matches to meet in the final match, effectively a championship final. In dreadful conditions, a Walter Little converted try gave Hato Petera the championship for the second consecutive year. Two end-of-season victories against St. Kevin’s and Shirley BHS in a 3 match South Island tour were some consolation.
The following season (1987) was Kerry Hill’s last at Westlake. A 4-14 loss to Rosmini meant another second place finish, though Matamata, King’s and Tauranga had been dispatched in earlier traditional games.
Peter Cooke, who had assisted Kerry Hill in the previous season, became coach in 1988 and steered Westlake to its first North Harbour 1st Grade championship. The team won all 10 games in the local competition, including a 10-0 victory over Rosmini in the final match. Wins over King’s, Whangarei and Shirley BHS were offset by losses in 7 other traditional fixtures.
Winning the Moascar Cup was just one of the highlights of a successful 1989 season. Westlake were again unbeaten in North Harbour, securing its second successive championship under Peter Cooke, and its only two losses in 22 matches were against St. Stephen’s and the Old Boys. Kelston, King’s, Whangarei and, of course, Tauranga, all tasted defeat.
Success was much more elusive in 1990, with four losses in 10 games in North Harbour, the loss of the Moascar Cup in the first defence against Kelston, no luck against King’s and Tauranga and a tough 4 match tour of the South Island. This would be Peter Cooke’s last season as 1st XV coach but he would continue coaching at the Under 15 level and then succeed Alan Kerr as 2nd XV coach in 1995, achieving a measure of success against 1st XV’s of other schools in the local 1st XV competition.
Don Johnson, who in the interim had won four 3A championships, resumed the helm of the 1st XV in 1991 for a further four seasons, the first two of these assisted by Peter Rea. Played in atrocious conditions, Westlake defeated traditional foe Rosmini 10-3 in the 1991 semi-final but one scoring effort gave Rangitoto the final 4-0 and relegated us to second place for the fourth time in seven years. Outside the local competition the 23-7 victory over Tauranga was a very satisfying effort.
The change in the balance of rugby power in North Harbour secondary schools was clearly evident in 1992. Previous champions, Rangitoto, Rosmini and Hato Petera, missed out on the championship round and Westlake lost its last six competition games (albeit only by a maximum of 5 points) to finish fifth. Matches against other schools were similarly frustrating compared to previous eras, the fixture list was now much more demanding with as many as 26 – 30 matches in a season.
Fortunes were mixed in the next two seasons. Despite three losses in the early games of 1993, Westlake made the semi-finals where they lost narrowly to Rosmini. In four international games, which Don Johnson had enthusiastically fostered, the firsts were unbeaten but the traditional games were tougher, with both Tauranga and Rotorua giving us an old fashioned rugby lesson.
Much the same occurred in 1994. Despite winning its last five North Harbour games, four earlier losses meant just missing a semi-final place. Again, there were many traditional and international fixtures to complement the local competition with an unbeaten four match tour of Australia, wins against South African visitors, St. John’s, and Rotorua and an upset 15-5 defeat of King’s, then leading the Auckland table and sprinkled with New Zealand representatives.
Over this four year period a positive link with several overseas schools had been created and nurtured by Don Johnson and he had also made a concerted effort to re-establish traditional rugby relationships and establish new ones.
For the next five seasons, until the close of the century, the 1st XV was to be under the stewardship of Alan Kerr, the first season in association with Liam Barry and the last four with Scott Reed. Alan Kerr had cut his teeth on the 2nd XV over several seasons, winning several championships, while Scott Reed had coached successfully in most of the lower grades.
The two combinations proved highly successful, winning the North Harbour championship in each of 1995, 1996, 1997 and 1998.
Not necessarily blessed with as many high quality players which previous coaches could call upon, Alan Kerr and Scott Reed nevertheless developed a splendid team ethic which enabled Westlake to continually and almost inevitably succeed in the local competition, despite the best efforts of opposition 1st XV’s.
Westlake’s stranglehold on the North Harbour title was finally broken in 1999 when a slow start against Rosmini in the semi-final proved too difficult to overcome, despite a strong finish. Massey defeated Rosmini in the final and Alan Kerr and Scott Reed retired as 1st XV coaches having achieved the greatest success of any coaches in the history of North Harbour’s premier school competition – four consecutive championships.
The 2000 season marked the first occasion the 1st XV had not been coached by a member of the teaching staff. With former Taranaki player and Maori All Black Charlie McAlister as coach, ably assisted by Mike Cowie as manager, the major priority was to establish a team culture based on self-discipline and self-respect. In the North Harbour Competition the team was able to recover from the setbacks of losing to Rosmini and Massey at the end of the first round to defeating the same teams in the semi-final and final. The 24-12 championship win over Massey would rank alongside the very best performances by Westlake in recent years. And there was to be further success; for the first time Westlake reached the last 8 of the New Zealand 1st XV Championship, along the way achieving a memorable victory over Wesley, but finally bowing out gallantly to a heavier St. Peter’s side. All in all, a grand season.
With 10 players returning in 2001, there were high hopes that the successes of the previous season might be emulated. An outstanding early season achievement was the winning of the Quadrangular Tournament final, 29-5 against Tauranga Boys College. This was Westlake’s first year in this prestigious tournament – involving Palmerston North BHS, St. Paul’s Collegiate, Tauranga and Westlake – and the two games played by the 1st XV were the best rugby they played all season. St. Paul’s were defeated 19-17 in the first game.
The early and middle parts of the season were notable for the huge, one-sided victories achieved by the three top teams – Westlake, Massey and Rosmini. Then came the home game against Massey, seeking a measure of revenge for their defeat in the previous year’s final. Westlake dominated for much of the game and should have won comfortably. Some wrong option taking let Massey back into the game and they were delighted to take a narrow victory. This loss would later prove to be a crucial factor in determining the top two teams and therefore their opposition in the semi-finals.
In the second game of the round, Westlake convincingly defeated Rosmini in all aspects of play to set up a semi-final clash against the same team two weeks later. The unavailability of star player Luke McAlister, due to selection in the NZ Schools team for the match against England in the curtain raiser to the All Blacks test at Carisbrook would become a significant issue both in the lead up to, and in the playing of the game.
Westlake approached both Rosmini and the North Harbour Rugby Union seeking to have the semi-final date changed to enable McAlister to appear for Westlake. Interestingly, the Auckland secondary schools competition was at a similar stage and, with several Auckland players also selected to represent New Zealand Schools, the semi-finals were sensibly re-scheduled to avoid the inevitable clash.
As the Harbour semi-final draw had already been published Rosmini was quite within its rights to stand firm on the original date. Westlake needed Rosmini to agree to the change and, given the Auckland situation it hoped the North Harbour might broker a common sense solution. Rosmini would not budge, the result being North Harbour’s sole NZ schools representative was denied the opportunity to captain his school in the semi-final.
Without McAlister, Westlake were a much less daunting prospect and Rosmini took advantage of the home team’s indecisiveness to secure a comfortable victory. They would go on, the next weekend, to defeat Massey for the championship.
A somewhat frustrating end to Westlake’s season, but coach Charlie McAlister had made a huge impact over two seasons, Luke McAlister (Below) had been a star player for both NZ Under 19 and NZ Schools and 10 1st XV players had been selected for North Harbour Secondary Schools.
The 2002 team, under coaches Nick Matenga and Brendon Horlock, made a steady start to the season, building to the traditional Quandrangular Tournament at Queen’s Birthday weekend. Two very tough games against Palmerston North BHS and Tauranga Boys College were quickly followed by a creditable loss in a mid-week encounter against Massey High School and then a shock loss (the first since 1991) to Rangitoto College. Four hard games in one week and injuries to key players had a long-term effect on the team’s later performances. In a must win game at North Harbour Stadium, the team succumbed to a much better organised and motivated Rosmini side, the 0-37 loss representing Westlake 1st XV’s largest ever defeat in North Harbour matches since the competition started in 1985. The same weekend, Takapuna Grammar’s victory over Rangitoto College shut Westlake out of the semi-finals for the first time since 1994, bringing to a close a disappointing season.
The 2003 season had similarities with the previous season. For the first time, Westlake advertised in prominent newspapers for a 1st XV coach with Lindsey Ellery, a successful premier coach with Waitemata and other clubs, being appointed. Heavy losses to Kelston and the two quadrangular games and also the grading game against Massey were followed by losses to Rosmini and Massey (again) in the championship round – the last being its largest defeat in North Harbour. Still, the team had qualified third and faced Massey in a semi-final, the second consecutive Saturday it played away against the same opponent. A much better performance was a great way for the team and coach to finish the season, the 11-21 loss only being confirmed in the last few minutes when Massey scored a converted try. The forwards had been a competitive unit all season and were seldom, if at all, dominated. The backs, lacking individual stars, often struggled against good teams. With many players returning in 2004, and a top season by the 5A team, a solid foundation has been laid for an improved showing over the next two seasons.
After a narrow pre-season loss to Kelston (12-19) and a most successful four match tour to Australia in April, the 2004 season promised to be one which would compensate for the frustrations of the previous three. After eleven unbeaten games in the North Harbour competition, including two superb victories over Massey, and domination over Rosmini, Westlake emerged as the best team leading into the semi-finals. Once again, a below par performance, against a much improved Rosmini in the semi-final ended the 1st XV’s season in a most disappointing fashion.
A two-week pre-season tour of South Africa, a first for Westlake rugby, marked the opening of the 1st XV’s 2005 season. Six wins out of seven on that tour set the scene for a successful season. On the path to the North Harbour final, Westlake’s three wins over Rosmini included its largest victory (27-3) over that school. A narrow loss (6-8) to Massey mid-season indicated that another close game was likely in the final. Westlake led 10-5 with 20 minutes remaining and, with plenty of resolve and spirit, the team was able to withstand many attacks and keep Massey scoreless for the remainder of the match. The win secured Westlake’s first Championship since 2000 and broke the 4 year cycle of Rosmini and Massey alternating as victors. The Championship was also a fitting finale to Lindsey Ellery’s three year stint as coach. His very generous support was instrumental in enabling the South Africa tour to take place and his work, and that of his support staff, was rewarded in the end.
The appointment of the 1st XV coach for 2006 marked the first occasion that an Old Boy and former All Black had filled the position. Dean Kenny had been a Westlake student in his early years before finishing his schooling at Palmerston North Boys High School and then going on to represent Otago and New Zealand.
Westlake looked the most likely team in the early rounds of the competition, but mid-season losses to both Rosmini and Takapuna (the first loss to this school since 1990) helped to provide the motivation for a must-win victory by 30-6 over Massey. Eleven days later Westlake, in the unusual position of 4th ranked semi-finalist, faced top-ranked Massey in muddy conditions at Massey. With two minutes remaining, Ben Botica kicked a difficult wide-angled penalty to secure a 9-8 victory and a date with Rosmini in the final. The win over Massey was the team’s 3rd victory of the season over its West Auckland rival, thus “reversing” the three losses Westlake had suffered to the same team in 2002.
No-one could have expected what eventuated in the 2006 final, played at Albany Stadium as curtain raiser to the North Harbour-Wellington match. Given the previous encounters, both Westlake and Rosmini had cause to be confident. With a half-time lead of 20-8, Westlake scored 56 unanswered points in the second half for a 76-8 scoreline. Few, if any, finals at this level or in senior rugby will have finished with such a margin. It was a day when everything seemed to work for Westlake; the team stuck with its game plan throughout, mistakes were minimised and the correct options were taken both to create scoring opportunities and then to take them.
The team scored 10 tries in the final, with Ben Botica converting 9 of them and adding 2 penalties to his own try for a personal haul of 29 points. It is fair to assume that all of the players, and Dean Kenny and his management team, will always remember this match as special and quite exceptional.
2006 was the second consecutive season in which Westlake won five of its six matches involving either Massey or Rosmini. In 2005-2006, to win ten of the twelve matches against its old foes was a fine achievement indeed.
The next season, 2007, marked a further change in 1st XV management with Rob Taylor assuming the coach’s role, ably assisted by Tony McBride for the next two seasons. Taylor came to Westlake from St Pauls College having previously been a successful 1st XV coach at Rosmini winning four North Harbour Championships, in 1993, 1994, 2001 and 2003.
Following some mixed results during the first two rounds, including losses to Massey, Takapuna and Rosmini, Westlake still managed to finish top of the top four play offs to earn a home semi-final against Massey. Down 3-13 at half time and 15-18 with only minutes remaining, Ben Botica’s individual brilliance almost secured the winning try. But it was not to be. Massey scored at the other end and later would go on to share the championship with Takapuna Grammar, that school’s first success at 1st XV level in North Harbour. Takapuna Grammar had been the only ‘North Shore’ school ever to win the Auckland Senior A 1st XV championship, a feat they achieved in 1941.
The 2007 season also marked the first occasion the 1st XV, along with the under 15’s, played New Plymouth Boys High School in what is hoped will be an annual exchange
Following a tour to South Africa in April/May 2008 (organised by Shane Young), the 1st XV, again under Rob Taylor and Tony McBride, progressed to the final following two large wins over Massey, but with two losses to Rosmini along the way. Given those two earlier comfortable wins Rosmini may have been justified in considering themselves favourites for the final.
In wet and windy conditions Westlake led 13-0, but then faced the inevitable Rosmini fight back managing to cling to its 13-11 margin at the final whistle.
In the top eight play off Westlake hosted Auckland champions De La Salle, eventually losing to the team which would go on to become the New Zealand 1st XV champions.
Much earlier in the season, at Queen’s Birthday weekend, Westlake had hosted the Quadrangular tourney with Tauranga, St Paul’s Collegiate and Palmerston North Boys High visiting for that occasion. A last minute (drop goal) 18-19 loss to Tauranga was highly disappointing especially as Westlake had been winless against Tauranga since 2001, the year of its solitary win since 1991.
For the 2009 season, Tony McBride, who had moved on promotion to Hastings Boys High School was replaced by Mark Calverley from Wanganui Collegiate as Rob Taylor’s assistant. Mid season losses to Rosmini (twice) and Massey tended to overshadow a superb late season 13-10 win against Massey on their home ground and consigned Westlake to third place and missing out on a place in the final. Rosmini would defeat Massey in that final. An unusual competition format determined there would be no semi-finals, only a final.
An overseas tour, again organised by Shane Young, would be the focus and lead-in to the local competition for the 2010 season. A first time visit to Argentina provided tough games and interesting situations both on and off the field and the opportunity to develop team spirit.
After a positive start to the Harbour competition with an early season win over Rosmini, in a televised match, Westlake suffered a mid-season lapse in form losing both to Orewa (the first loss to that school since 1994) and Massey. Solid wins against Rosmini and then Massey in the semi-final meant the 1st XV would once again face Rosmini in the final.
The final was scheduled as the curtain raiser to the North Harbour v Otago match and was once again to be shown live on the rugby channel. Westlake had the upper hand for much of the game, scoring four tries to secure a 28-15 win, and gain its eleventh championship in the twenty six years of North Harbour Rugby. This win, its third over Rosmini during the season, also represented the ninth successive occasion in which Westlake had made it to the final and then won it. The last time Westlake had lost a 1st XV final was 1991 when it had lost 0-4 to Rangitoto.
Winning the Harbour championship meant that Westlake would host MAGS, again televised, in the Blue Final section for the national championship. MAGS, coached by Charlie McAlister, had been unbeaten in the Auckland competition and went into the match as the resounding favourites. Played on the Tuesday following the North Harbour final the Westlake 1st XV would welcome the prospect of having two thousand plus Westlake students supporting it in its effort to progress beyond the ‘last 8’ for the first time.
Despite a sterling effort Westlake could not match the speed and penetration of the MAGS backs but still managed to restrict MAGS to a 19-3 margin.
MAGS would then join St Bedes, Gisborne Boys High School and Hamilton Boys High School in the national semi-finals with MAGS eventually defeating Hamilton Boys High School, the current national and world champions. So, for Westlake at least, to have been defeated (again) by the team going on to win the national championships was certainly no disgrace.
2011 was no disgrace either. Despite failing to defend their North Harbour Championship and losing 9 out of their 19 matches, an inexperienced and small team proved to be highly competitive losing five games by just two points or less!