New Zealand U20s first five Rico Simpson has a habit of beating Australia


When Rico Simpson helped Auckland East beat Auckland West in the 2018 National Intermediate Roller Mills Championship, several older spectators told him his play resembled that of Australian top five champion Stephen Larkham.

“I knew him even though I hadn't seen him play. It was interesting. We're two skinny guys who are similar in the way we run. If I could do half of Steven's career I'd be a happy man,” Simpson said. Rugby Pass.

Ironically, Simpson has proven to have conquered Australia's age group.

In 2023 he was a dominant figure in the New Zealand secondary schools with scores of 34-3 and 57-36 over Australia. Over the two matches in Canberra, he kicked ten kicks and three penalties.

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In the inaugural under-20 rugby tournament on the Sunshine Coast in May, Simpson helped New Zealand win the tournament unbeaten.

Against South Africa, Simpson threw the two passes that led to tries from Stanley Solomon and Frank Vainoko to equalize 13-13.

He scored six goals from six attempts in a 43-20 win over Argentina. Against Australia, he converted three tries and played a pivotal role in the 36-25 win before being cruelly discarded.

“The weather played a big part in that first match against South Africa. “It was just right for the way they play the game, which is a slow, set-piece style,” Simpson said.

“When I came in, I wanted to speed things up and get the ball to the rim more. It wasn't easy, but I've been practicing long passes since I was a kid. It was nice to get a couple.

“Some other players I like are Jordie Barrett and Steven Perofeta. I've been working with Steven a bit at the Blues. It's crazy how good he is at controlling the game and opening things up in attack.

“Against Argentina, we wanted to open up our game. Play more with our shape and establish an identity.

“We knew the game against Australia was going to be tough. They play like us. Bringing physicality, being on the ball and being clean was key in that game.

In the 68th minute, with the team down 19-25 to Australia, Simpson made a clear foul. He was shown a yellow card under a 'crocodile roll' ban – the act of twisting a defending player off his feet in the tackle area.

“We talked about it beforehand but since it was a new law, we didn't have a huge lead. “And besides, I don't make a living cleaning rocks,” Simpson laughed.

“The guy behind me went to clean up and I fell forward. I was about to roll, but I landed awkwardly on my knees and got stuck. When I went to wriggle out of the Australian player, he was rolled into a crocodile.

“The boys were brilliant in those last 10 minutes without me. The plan was to stay out, but we planned for the unexpected.

Simpson, the eldest of three children, was born in Whakatane. He didn't expect to move to Auckland, but his parents were ambitious. Father Sean graduated from sweeping floors in a factory to running his own cabinet making business. My mother Leah runs a beauty salon.

Simpson was educated at St Mary's School in Papakura and is a pathway to Sacred Heart College.

Simpson made his debut for the legendary Sacred Heart First XV during the Covid-plagued 2021 season. In 2022, Sacred Heart reached the semi-finals and were narrowly beaten by eventual champions Kelston Boys' High School.

Narrow defeat was a familiar tale of woe for Sacred Heart. Despite the drool-worthy culture of the oval ball, and legends like Sean Fitzpatrick, Kieran Crawley, Craig “Bosty” Ennis and Nelly Latu, it had gone 58 years without winning a 1A championship.

Sacred Heart finished second in 1966, 1967, 1970 and 1971. Sacred Heart were the only team to conquer Auckland Grammar School twice when Sir Graham Henry was cutting his teeth there. Between 1975 and 1980, Ted won 92 of 101 games as head coach of the Lions.

Again, in 1995 and 1996, Sacred Heart beat national champions Kelston Boys' High School, but were still unable to capture the title. In 2011, Sacred Heart beat every team in 1A but faltered in the semifinals to Kelston, which went on to finish in the top four nationally. With the exception of 2013, semi-final appearances followed every season until 2019 with the 2016 and 2017 finals being lost.

“We had a strong pre-season. In our first 1A game we beat King's College 58-22. We talked about embracing the challenge of the cruise rather than walking away from it. It's a lot of motivation, isn't it?”

“The game that I thought everything clicked for was against De La Salle College. They were a tough team and they answered us hard. Then we put a lot of points on them, and I thought that felt good.”

Simpson scored 18 points in the King's College massacre and Da La Salle's 43-25 victory.

The only team to beat Sacred Heart on their way to the 1A final was opponents St Kentigern College.

More than 6,000 people turned out to Waitemata Rugby Club to watch the deciding match.

Sacred Heart fell behind 10-0 before Simpson made a huge break for halfback Sione Finau's first two tries. The incident was the catalyst for Simpson to take matters into his own hands.

The New Zealand Herald reported:

“This was the Simpson show… With two minutes left in the first half, the Sacred mascot danced gracefully through the traffic to get under the sticks and make it 24-10.”

“I looked up and the prop had taken the blind side. I thought I was going to be intruding there. I was looking for the dump, but the gap got bigger,” Simpson said.

It was a very emotional match. Losing to them in the first leg taught us a lot about the way they played and how we wanted to play.

“The coaches encouraged us to take control of the game plan and not be afraid to make any cracks.”

Sacred Heart won 39-29 with Simpson contributing 19 points. The New Zealand Herald captured the sentiment.

Sacred Heart full-time's Rico Simpson celebrates during the 1st XV final between St Kentigern's and Sacred Heart at Waitakere Rugby Club on August 19, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

“On the sidelines, old, weather-beaten Sacred Heart boys – many of whom were not even born the last time such ceremonies were held – wept openly after years of heartbreak, pain and frustration.”

“My first feelings were relief. There were a lot of expectations and the boys delivered,” Simpson said.

“I was so emotional when Matt Grace, who has sons on the team and was a member of our rugby committee, hugged me in tears. Matt is so strong. Seeing how much this meant to him was so special.”

In April Kelson Butler (Chairman Governor 1983) released a film called Sacred, a rugby story for the ages about the Sacred Heart win.

Simpson will be hoping to provide more highlights at the World Under-20 Championships which start in South Africa on June 29. New Zealand plays in one group with Wales, Spain and France, the three-time defending champion.

“I can't wait for South Africa. The boys are holding a networking camp in June before selecting the final team. I think we've grown up a lot in Australia,” Simpson said.





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