OPOTIKI'S Kodre Tai powers through the Tauranga North opposition during a match at last year’s Tai Mitchell tournament. File photo

TAI Mitchell representative rugby kicks off this Sunday in Te Teko with a pre-tournament game for all under-13 rugby teams in the competition.

This year the event is hosted by the Rangitaiki Primary Schools Association, which represents Kawerau, Te Teko and adjacent rural areas.

The first two rounds are played over the next two Sundays at Eivers Park in Te Teko, where the 10 teams play one match each weekend.

The final rounds of the four-day tournament will be played at Tarawera Park in Kawerau from July 4 to 7.

Opotiki’s junior rugby team will go into this year’s tournament under no illusions of success.

In fact, the players and coaches know that they will face major defeats in most games.

Opotiki coach Tony Howe said it was probably the last year there will be an Opotiki team at the tournament.

“We can no longer compete,” he said.

“The number of school age kids is reducing drastically and that means we have very few to choose from.

“In our whole catchment, from East Cape and south there are probably only about 130 year 8 boys. Some of those are too big, some are too small, and some don’t play rugby at all.

“That makes it impossible for us to field a competitive team.”

He said the tournament pits his team against teams from the likes of Tauranga West, which picks up students from Tauranga Intermediate School – the largest intermediate school in the country.

“How can we compete with that?

“Our kids are tending to hate going to the tournament only to come away with a 100-nil loss each time.

“Te Puke imports three Fijian players a year on rugby scholarships. I understand this year there were about 180 kids in Fiji vying for the opportunity.”

Howe said Opotiki was looking at other avenues for young players, such as the Global Games in Taupo, which is a festival of rugby with teams of equal ability playing against each other.

“Tai Mitchell was good a year or so ago when there was a top six and a bottom four, which meant that teams were more evenly pitted against one another and the scores were pretty close, but that was abandoned after one year.

“We were quite happy to be a bottom four team, but not the bottom team out of the full 10.”

He said it wasn’t always like it is now.

“I can recall the very first time I had a team playing Tai Mitchell. Our very first game was against Tauranga and we beat them. These days there are four Tauranga teams and they are all strong because they have such a large number of kids to choose from.

“I’m a rugby nut, but I’m also realistic enough to know that what we are doing at the moment is not sustainable.”

He suggested that an Eastern Bay team would be a better option.

“I’m sure we are not the only weak team from the Eastern Bay. If we had one team that had players from Opotiki, Whakatane and other parts we would probably be quite competitive.”

The Tai Mitchell draw for Sunday, June 23 is:

10.30am: Field 1– Te Puke vs Tauranga West; Field 2 – Tauranga East vs Whakatane.
11.45am: Tauranga North vs Rangitaiki, Field 2 – Rotorua Maroon vs Opotiki.
1pm: Rotorua Gold vs Galatea.

Challenges in the tournament

THE origins of the Tai Mitchell tournament date back to 1938, a time before there was organised junior rugby.

An increasing issue for Eastern Bay Tai Mitchell rep teams is low player numbers in the under-12 and under-13 age groups combined with the weight limit, which make it hard for areas to field a team.

Another issue is players wanting to play for the area they attend school rather than their home area, or vice versa, which results in dispensations being granted.

Currently, there is a review of the Roller Mills tournament by the Northern Regional Rugby Council which is expected to be completed by September this year.

Part of the review by those sports administers is whether rep rugby at intermediate age results in players giving up the sport through overload.

Research appears to support this argument, with more than half of all Roller Mills players, who are selected from the Tai Mitchell and equivalent tournaments throughout the country each year, having given up rugby by the age of 20.

Roller Mills is also weight-restricted to 57kg.

Another issue is that girls are not allowed to trial and play for Tai Mitchell teams, something which has been queried over the years, but never changed in spite of an increasing number of girls playing in junior rugby teams.

Whether the Roller Mills review will impact on the future of Tai Mitchell for the Bay of Plenty region isn’t known.

An increasing issue is Eastern Bay teams trying to compete against city teams which have a much larger pool of talent to select from.

Getting beaten by 80-odd points doesn’t give teams much motivation, said Opotiki Primary principal Tony Howe, who was among the Opotiki principals to vote on their future in the tournament.

It is likely Opotiki will enter in 2020 before reviewing their future in Tai Mitchell.

Te Whanau-a-Apanui already dropped out in recent years due to low player numbers. This spot was subsequently taken up by another Western Bay team.