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It was an epic rugby battle, right down to the wire.

Not the World Cup but two squads of Wairarapa school kids who could give any international team a lesson in grit, fitness and verve.

The final JAB Under-13 clash of the season last month saw teams from Pioneer and Red Star battle try-for-try, with Pioneer winning 40-38.

For coaches, managers and parents, that game was a heartwarming show of sportsmanship, with only positive vibes from the sideline.

In the thick of it were Pioneer’s five girls, who tackled with the best and biggest of players.

“The girls have come in amazingly, but the boys have done so well to accept them and play alongside them,” Pioneer Under-13 manager Paula Pakai said.

The sports club has seen a “huge influx” of girls wanting to play rugby, since the Women’s Rugby World Cup.

Three of the Under-13 girls – Atiulagi Fale Solomona, Baylee Morris and Anahera Hemopo – were starters for the final. Girls in Under-13 teams are usually in college and play down a grade in mixed teams.

“The girls don’t need cotton wool. They are outstanding tacklers,” coach Cheyenne Pakai said.

Couple Paula and Cheyenne, who have been coaching and managing together for three seasons, said the Pioneer rugby kids had become their extended family, with practice every Thursday – whatever the weather – for 1.5 hours.

These evenings were “full of community spirit” and training was followed by tea put on by parents, sometimes for up to 130 kids.

“Communication between parents has been great right through the season,” Paula said.

“The kids come from diverse backgrounds – they’ve come together and look after each other. We’ve seen a huge growth in maturity.”

The Pioneer Under-13 team includes twin brothers, some siblings and “lots of cousins”. At the start of the season, 26 children registered for the Under-13 squad, with just 22 needed. Many of the Pioneer and Red Star Under-13 players attend Masterton schools together and connections between the two teams was evident after the final whistle on August 18.

A number of children from both teams were already fit at the start of the rugby season after playing for Pioneer in a rugby league competition in Palmerston North from January to March.

In the Under-13 final, Pioneer clawed back from being 19-0 down after 20 minutes, to be 19-19 at halftime. The second half was a rollercoaster of thrills for the crowd at Memorial Park in Masterton, until the ball was finally kicked out by Pioneer, sealing the win under the stadium lights.

“It was a nail-biter,” Cheyenne said. “It was try-for-try in the second half. It wasn’t all going our way, but we kept attacking and clawed back.”

At halftime on the sideline, Cheyenne told the Pioneer team to “pull their socks up, stick to the plan and attack to win”.

“At the end, there was so much emotion on both sides – our kids were emotional from winning and the other side was emotional from losing. But they did haka for each other and there were cuddles all round,” Paula said.

“We had the game videoed and you can’t hear anything negative from the sidelines – just good sportsmanship.”

After the game, players enjoyed pizza and cold drinks – the Pioneer team was able to really celebrate at their prizegiving and a trip to the swimming pools a short time later.

Co-manager of Pioneer Under-13, David Edmonds, said the attitude of the tamariki was a stand-out of the season: “There was no back-answering, no yelling – they were all respectful.”

Cheyenne said it was nice to see the evolution from separate team “huddles” of boys and girls, to every player being firmly part of the team.

“There’s some real rugby talent in there.”

MIS principal Russell Thompson said the Under-13 final “was one of the best games of rugby that I have seen at the Under-13 age level”.

The MIS boys’ rugby team, which involved many players from the Under-13 final, won the Wellington Region Intermediate Schools open weight tournament in Petone last week.

“We have been involved in this tournament for the past two decades and this is the first time we have won the trophy,” Thompson said.

“We were one of the smallest teams in the open weight section in terms of size but easily the biggest in regard to playing for each other with effort and heart.”

The MIS team will head to the lower North Island intermediate schools tournament in Palmerston North on October 18.

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