Two high quality sides are on a collision course for Saturday's Premiership final at the Jock Hobbs Memorial national Under 19 tournament in Taupo.
Canterbury and Waikato will lock horns after dispatching Otago and Taranaki respectively with some ease in semifinal play. They will now play for the Graham Mourie Cup, which will have a new name inscribed upon it after Wellington took the spoils in 2014.
There may not be thousands on hand at Owen Delany Park, despite the good weather, but there are plenty of scouts and coaches of the ilk of Dave Rennie, Chris Boyd, Todd Blackadder, Mark Hammett and Sir Gordon Tietjens checking out the young talent of the first or second year school leavers.
Many of the players will play in the 2016 ITM Cup. Auckland's Rieko Ioane and Tasman's Alex Nankivell are among those who have already represented their provinces at the top level. But some will also filter into Super Rugby in 2017-18. Some will also form the basis of the New Zealand Under 20 side who take on the world again in June. Coach Scott Robertson, taking a break from his ITM Cup duties with Canterbury, was a very interested spectator.
Waikato, who have a very young ITM Cup side in 2015, should have a very good ITM Cup side in 2016-17 judging by the impressive manner in which they won their semifinal 48-20, with seven tries. Fullback Jordan Trainor, a 2014 NZ Schools rep out of Auckland's St Peter's College who has already trained with the Chiefs, was hot to trot, scoring twice and setting up three more, to go top of the tournament tryscoring charts with four. But Trainor was just one of four dangerous Waikato threequarters. His centre Amanaki Savieti blew the game open after just 90 seconds with a surging run which led to the first of two tries to hooker Sekope Moli-Lopeti. Wings Jesse Rihari and Shelford Murray, the latter in the 2014 NZ Barbarians Schools out of King's College, also benefitted from Trainor's slicing runs and showed their wares.
But Waikato did not just shine on attack. Captain Luke Jacobson led by example and put in some crunching tackles, as did his loose forward partner Jahrome Brown. One hit by Jacobson on Otago skipper Tom Hardy was especially memorable. It wasn't all just flash and dash in the backs either. Lopeti scored his second from a perfectly executed lineout drive.
The way in which Canterbury dissected Taranaki 42-17 was quite different but no less effective or convincing. They laid on six tries to two, including a brace to wing Fraser Scott, with typical Canterbury efficiency. It was also noticeable, for those who follow First XV rugby closely, how many of the squad originate outside Canterbury. At a glance, second five Jordie Barrett, of the famous Barrett clan, is a Taranaki boy, as is halfback Logan Crowley, prop Sean Paranihi finished his schooling at St Kentigern, fullback Caleb Makene is a Napier BHS product, plus two forwards out of Wellington, prop Joel Hintz (who was sinbinned for rucking!) and loosie Jack McCormack, who scored a try, was the 2014 St Pat's Silverstream skipper and a potentially fine footballer.
Lock Hamish Dalzell was in the New Zealand Under 20s this season.
There are of course, good educational opportunities in Canterbury, with two universities in the city, but the attractions of their academy system are well documented.
Earlier in the day, North Harbour, recovered from what was variously described as food poisoning or a virus that affected their performance on opening day, defeated Manawatu 31-24 to stay in the running for fifth position, but Auckland A's disappointing tournament continued with a 34-23 loss to Wellington. Their B side is staring at last place after falling 24-19 to Bay of Plenty, and they will need to beat Heartland on Saturday to avoid that ignominy. In the Championship semifinals for the Michael Jones Trophy, Counties Manukau thrashed Southland 51-20, with Samoan Under 20s rep Jonathan Taumateine scoring 26 points, including two tries, to go to 47 points, leading all scorers.
Tasman worked had to edge Hawke's Bay 26-20 in the other semi, a cracking game.
Tasman fullback Nankivell, who played for NZ Barbarians Schools out of Christchurch BHS in 2014, scored a muscular try and set up No 8 Brendon Asomua-Goodman for Tasman's opening score. The lead had already been taken by first five TC Campbell, who sprinted 45m after his captain, lock Quinten Strange, had intercepted a loose Hawke's Bay pass.
Today sees the second day of professional development for all the players at the tournament. On the agenda this afternoon will be sessions on mental wellbeing and awareness around drugs, supplements and drug-testing procedures. All this will be useful information with which to be armed as they move into the professional rugby ranks.
You can follow the tournament at www.facebook.com/NationalUnder19s
Jock Hobbs Memorial national U19 tournament
(Owen Delany Park, Taupo)
Day two: Championship playoffs: Bay of Plenty 24 Auckland B 19, Northland 22 Heartland 16; Semifinals: Counties Manukau 51 Southland 20, Tasman 26 Hawke's Bay 20
Premiership playoffs: North Harbour 31 Manawatu 24, Wellington 34 Auckland A 23; Semifinals: Waikato 48 Otago 20, Canterbury 42 Taranaki 17