By Carey Clements
After a three year hiatus since it last played an international match, the New Zealand Universities and Tertiary Students rugby league side traveled to England over the weekend ahead of their two Test tour.
Last year due to being unable to meet the high fee cost imposed by hosts Australia, the NZUTSRL was forced to miss its first ever Student World Cup.
NZUTSRL Chairman John Fiso said as a result, the tour to England will be about regaining credibility as well as ensuring his side will have a high quality experience for those players that choose to play rugby league at university and tertiary level.
“It will give players an appetite of playing the game at a higher level and also an understanding of how the English play as well as what some of the grounds are like, which will be useful, before we travel over there in 2021 to the next Student World Cup.
Fiso also said the tour is about pathways for players, who may attract the attention of local scouts.
“It is a critical tour considering that nine months ago we were not going anywhere, but due to some magnificent hard work by my Board, we have turned things around in just six months.”
Of the 19 players that are going on the tour, just four in captain Jason Whareatu, vice captain Isaac Robinson along with Solomona Sio and Kane Telea, have played for the NZUTSRL.
As a result, the team will have 15 new players to take the total number of players that have played for the body to 457, since official representative games began exactly 50 years ago this year.
The side will have a real family feel to it as it features brothers Mitchell and Rory Ropati along with their cousin George Ropati. In doing so it will be the 19th pair of brothers to play for the NZUTSRL, while as both cousins had fathers that also played for the NZUTSRL (John Ropati as the father of Mitchell and Rory) and Tea Ropati as the father of George, it will be the sixth and seventh father and son(s) combinations along with the sixth time that cousins have also played for the NZUTSRL.
Coach Kenny O’Brien said England are not taking any chances by naming an initial 25-player squad as it will be using the Tests as a measure before it plays in a Student Four Nations tournament.
“Although we are unknown to England, the same could be said about our knowledge of them, except to say that they are bound to be tough as was witnessed when they beat us in an extra time thriller at the 2013 Student World Cup in England.”
“This tour will be about building relationships as well as our brand as we think we have something to offer rugby league in New Zealand,” O’Brien said.
The only game prior to the Tests will be against Leeds Beckett University next Wednesday. At last year’s Student World Cup, Leeds provided 14 players to the England Students side. The Tests will be played on consecutive Saturdays in Featherston and Newcastle respectively and both will be played as curtain-raisers to Super League games.
The NZUTSRL touring side is: Jason Whareaitu (captain, Bay of Plenty), Isaac Robinson (vice captain, Waikato), Ricki Allan (Otago), Jake Cusack (Auckland), Matt Filipo (Bay of Plenty), Mike Hollis (Wellington), Jong Hoon Lee (Otago), Josh McKenzie (Otago), Brooklan Niwa (Otago), George Ropati (Auckland), Mitchell Ropati (Auckland), Rory Ropati (Auckland), Solomona Sio (Wellington), Jeremy Siulepa (Bay of Plenty), Jordan Stuart (Otago), Destry Tamai (Bay of Plenty), Kane Telea (Auckland), Ben Tunnicliff (Otago), Cameron Walters (Bay of Plenty); Coach: Kenny O’Brien (Wellington), Assistant Coach: Ray Fitiao (Otago), Manager: David Marsh (Auckland), Trainer: Tea Ropati (Auckland).