Last year, Napier Boys High School embarked on a 3-week Rugby tour of North America. Part of that tour included travelling to Northern California and playing High School, Club U20 and Academy- age group U20 teams. Their coach, Billy TeHiko, tells us their stories.
Here’s a Kiwi’s view of the Americans we met and the rugby teams we played against. First, by way of introduction, my name is Billy Te Hiko, a volunteer parent coach who fell into coaching 15 years ago.
Napier Boys High School is a public school with boarding facilities in Napier, a city in the Province of Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand and was established in 1872. Napier is famous for its vineyards and art deco buildings, which rose from the ashes during the re-build after the 1931 Napier earthquake. It has a school roll of 1,200 boys, of which 600 play rugby.
This trip involved 30 players (ages 15-17) from throughout the playing grades of the school and 11 support staff and parents.
We came to America from Vancouver. After checking into our hotel, we arrived at Stanford University very late for our first U.S. game, looking for clues as to where we might be playing. After 10 minutes of driving around campus, one of the boys said, “Just look for the rugby posts.” We looked at each other and laughed and promptly found the ground. We decided that that boy was going to go far. We told him he’d get an extra sip of water at halftime for his initiative. Sometimes adults over-complicate the simplest things.
The Napier boys went through their warm-up on the Stanford field.It’s like billiard table to play on. We’re already envious. With the warm-up completed the captains did the coin toss and the boys moved to halfway to do our school Haka.
Having issued the challenge through our Haka to the opposition, the Napier boys looked a bit perplexed when they saw the opposition was made up entirely of Samoan and Tongan players whose families have immigrated to the USA and have a strong community presence in East Palo Alto. One of the Napier supporters said, “This is just like home.”
They formed up to wait for the opposition’s Haka challenge. After a couple of minutes of waiting and staring at each other, the referee blew his whistle for the start of the game. No Haka. By half time the score read 7-22 on the electronic score board. We had a better second half. Final score: 29-36 to East Palo Alto.
The boys were obviously disappointed with the loss, but we raised their morale by reminding them of everything they had been through just to make it to this game. By the time we arrived at the house of the manager in a palatial suburb in San Francisco they were smiling and looking forward to mixing and mingling with East Palo Alto boys.
We had aftermatch pizza and soda and our captain’s speech was followed by the team singing a Maori waiata (song).
The Napier coaches listened to the problems the East Palo Alto and San Mateo coaches have just in fielding a team. Some of their players have problems with gangs and petty crime. The coaches are trying to turn some of these troubled teens around with the use of rugby. Both these teams used to just brawl every time they played one another. They certainly have our respect for doing what they do. Frank Merrill, who organized this game, and the coaches and managers are doing a great job with those boys.
Then it was off for a bit of sightseeing – at Alcatraz and Pier 39 – a bit of history, shopping and rest.
We had a change of bus driver in Sacramento. Mario is a naturalized American and originally from El Salvador.
Our next game was to be Jesuit High School in Sacramento.
After a quick practise, the boys were matched with their billets and hosted for the next two nights. The Napier Boys were looking forward to this part of the trip – meeting and integrating with American families. I and two other coaches were also billeted with a family in Davis, which was a first for all of us since our school days. Our hosts had a BBQ for us and those billets that lived nearby and we met with parents. It was a great evening talking to everyone as we all shared the same commonality: all our boys play rugby.
The next day we were given a guide, Witt Poindexter, and taken to Sacramento for a tour of the State Capitol Building. He explained the governance process in California and, after looking at the blank youthful faces in front of him, he asked if there were any questions. A lone Napier boy’s hand went up: “Where’s Arnie’s office?”
When told he wasn’t in, the boy, not to be put off, asked, “Can we have a picture outside his office then, bro?” They all had their pictures taken with the State Trooper outside Gov. Schwarzenegger’s chambers.
We returned to Jesuit after over-eating at another mega-mall and prepared for the games in the afternoon. Both Napier teams played Jesuit’s Varsity A and B sides, with some of Napier’s players having to play two games. The Napier B side lost to a very good Varsity B side, while the A side won their game. The Jesuit team impressed us so much that one of the Napier coaches said, “We should see if some of these boys want to come back to New Zealand and board at Napier Boys High School.” Funnily enough, three Jesuit boys did just that two months after we returned, and stayed and played rugby in Napier for six weeks.
The after-match was conducted in the cafeteria and, as is Kiwi custom, we showered and changed into No.1’s of school blazer and tie. This was a hit with all the mothers in the room, as their boys were still in their sweats from the game. We also found out who the people were who made things happen: mothers. This was a well-organized team of “moms” who had everything running like clockwork – except our tardiness, for which we apologized. Our Napier boys were “preening” themselves in front of the one and only mirror in the room.
We made our entry into the cafeteria as a team to applause. I don’t know if that was for finally getting to the after-match or for the way the team was dressed. We sat down amongst our hosts and had pizza, soda and cookies. One of the American parents asked his Kiwi billet why the Napier Boys High School team didn’t celebrate after scoring a try. He answered, “Because we hadn’t finished winning the game yet.” Bless him.
We had a great time with our hosts from Jesuit and we made a definite connection with the boys and their parents from this school.
Next game U.C. Santa Barbara Rugby Academy.
We arrived on U.C. Santa Barbara’s campus – late as usual, and looking for goal posts. We resorted to asking a couple of female students for directions. They were only too pleased to point us in the right direction: the stadium. Another logical place to put a rugby field.
After a welcome by Coach Kevin Battle, we had a quick warm-up and were quickly on the back foot against a very well-drilled Academy side – despite the weight, age and size difference, the Napier boys showed a lot of character not to be overwhelmed and we ended up drawing the game.
U.C. Santa Barbara have some fine athletes and the campus’ seaside location and weather were a real attraction to us as coaches. Who wouldn’t want to coach here, let alone play rugby and study? The boys’ reasons for loving the place were a lot different, and had to do with female-male student ratio. The after-match was conducted at a pizza restaurant not far from campus. We prepared to leave, but our hosts wouldn’t let us leave until the Haka was performed. So the tables were moved and an impromptu cultural show was put on – much to the surprise of the other diners.
We stayed in Anaheim for a couple of nights, which the boys enjoyed, as the hotel we stayed at was home to High School cheerleading teams from all over the country competing in the National Cheerleading competition. The boys had been confined to the hotel grounds at every hotel we stayed at. They didn’t seem to mind obeying that rule in Anaheim.
Interestingly, a couple of the girls visited Napier after an invitation given by a Napier boy. This came as a great surprise to his parents when they discovered where the girls had arrived from. All they’d been asked was, “Is it all right if a couple of mates from the tour come over and stay a few nights?” His mother had simply assumed, quite naturally, that her son had meant a couple of boys from the tour. Not to worry. At the end of day they were well taken care of when they got here. The Napier boy took them to the school and introduced them to Principal Ross Brown, who promptly took them to a full school assembly and introduced them to the 1,200 boys. I think the girls were as gobsmacked at attending a formal school assembly as were the 1,200 boys about how this connection was made.
Last leg of the tour was to Honolulu. By now we were accustomed to waiting at airport gates and this would have been like any other long wait – except Snoop Dogg happened to breeze through the gate we were waiting at. Not one of the boys paid much attention. All were playing cards or listening to i-Pods. One Napier boy spotted Snoop as he started stepping over the boys who were all sprawled on the floor. The boys looked up and swarmed the rap legend, who was gracious enough to have pictures taken with them.
We landed in Honolulu on the last leg of the tour and our final game against a Hawaii Youth Rugby selection, which we won, though the Hawaiian side scored two very good tries. The Hawaiian rugby at youth level is in good hands. Their main problems consist of the difficult logistics of travelling between the islands, which is expensive and time consuming. Their boys are more than competitive on the field but lack knowledge on technical points (scrums/lifting technique at the lineouts/breakdown defense and attack). The coaches also tell me that they have to compete with NFL scouts poaching most of their gifted players. Since there is no formal professional pathway for rugby in Hawaii this will be an on-going problem.
I’d like to personally thank all the Americans, both individuals and families, who hosted and took care of us during our visit to your country. The boys now have a lifetime of memories and life experiences that your country had a lot to do with providing. Their perception of your country and the people in it will always remain positive. Before their trip most of their knowledge of the United States came from MTV.
Well that’s Napier Boys High schools experiences of Americans and the USA. We loved the place and people and if anyone asks where’s a good place to take a rugby tour, we’ll say, “The U.S.A.”