The U-18 Lightning Cup is one of the many initiatives undertaken by AFLNZ that will grow the sport in New Zealand. More than 50 of the best schoolboy footy players in the country converged on Wellington, eager to test and develop their skills.
The potential rewards for players at the tournament were significant. Out of the boys there, some will have done enough to merit selection in the New Zealand U-18 Hawks. With the right training from there, some of the boys playing in Wellington will go on to play for New Zealand as adults.
Many of the boys made some sacrifices to be there. As Coach Mick Coultard noted in his group talk at the start of the tournament, many of them were there at the expense of playing other sports. That they would choose to play in the Lightning Cup spoke volumes about the commitment they made to AFL as a sport.
The format of the tournament was fairly simple. The group was divided into three teams, made up of players from all over the country. From there they played each other team twice. Over one and a half days, four games of footy can be pretty tiring, but all of the participants were fantastic athletes who managed to keep going strong.
Development as players was also a big part of the tournament. When they weren’t playing games, the boys were training, getting expert coaching or watching videos of AFL Grand Finals. Many of them improved significantly over the few days, especially those eager to learn. The progress of some of the youngest players was particularly heartening.
Teamwork was another aspect of their footy that improved throughout the tournament. As the games went on, the passing moves became more fluid and complex. Players began to build understandings with each other after a few games together, a crucial skill in a dynamic sport like AFL.
The three teams were the Suns, the Eagles and the Giants, coached by Warwick Kain, Shannon Wall and Mick Coultard respectively. The coaches tried to select teams that would be as balanced as possible, with a mix of tall, short, young and old players. They also shuffled their teams around between and during matches, to get players experimenting with different positions.
In terms of the games, The Suns started to tournament at a furious pace, winning their first two. The Eagles won one and lost one on the first day, but the loss only made them resolve to come back stronger. The Giants had a tough time starting the tournament, losing three on the trot.
However, the advantage shifted in the last few games. The Eagles showed a lot of character to overcome their tired legs and hold onto a lead to beat the Suns in game 5, putting them on top of the table. The final clash, between the Suns and the Giants was must win for the Suns if they were to win the competition, but the Giants took their moment. Their enthusiastic attack clicked and they ran out with a big upset win, meaning the Eagles took out the trophy.
The matches were played in a great spirit. They were fiercely competitive, but the rivalries between teams and players were friendly. It wasn’t unusual to see two players far away from the play share a joke, before trying to outsprint the other to get to the ball.
Overall this was a fantastic event, and one that bodes well for the future of AFL in New Zealand. The ‘one policy’ was followed (ask Mick) by everyone and the boys had a great time. Next year promises to be even bigger and better, as the sport of AFL grows and develops.