In the bowels of Eden Park's ASB (north) Stand, you will find a quiet evolution taking place.

I was going to write 'revolution' but what is happening is simple and effective, where hard work and discipline are the bywords.

This is where young Auckland men, and women, straight out of school, spend a year learning the life skills they will need to hit the work-force or further tertiary study. All with a healthy infusion of rugby, the sport of their choice and, just maybe, in some cases, their future career.

Welcome to Auckland Rugby's Pro Sport programme, established in 2002 and now, having somewhat re-invented itself and conformed to all the educational standards, with a firm, if unsung, foothold in the Auckland rugby landscape.

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This is the face of Auckland rugby the public generally don't see, or even know about. They see only the tip of the iceberg, which is largely results-based at the professional end. They see the Blues struggling for consistency, or worry about why so many of the First XV stars seem to leave for Waikato, or why the clubs (still) feel marginalised.
But this is a good news story to shout from the rooftops.

Three months into the 2016 Pro Sport course and already most of the 20 trainees, including two girls, have noticed change for the better among a tight group dynamic.

Nicholas Laufoli is a 17-year-old just out of Mt Roskill Grammar, who plays his club footy for the University Under 21s. He wants to do further study next year and stick with his code.

"It's going well at the moment. The bond with the brothers is special. It was scary at first but now it's like walking into a family every morning."

Tevita Pola'apau is an 18-year-old out of Southern Cross Campus who plays for the Papatoetoe Under 21s. He says Pro Sport is intense but enjoyable.

"It's helped us develop our rugby and communication skills. It's tiring but we have to put in the hard work," he says.

Black Ferns prop Aldora Itunu, here helping out on the recent MSD holiday programme, did the Pro Sport programme in 2010. Photo / Supplied
Black Ferns prop Aldora Itunu, here helping out on the recent MSD holiday programme, did the Pro Sport programme in 2010. Photo / Supplied

You won't have far to go to find the teachers Shirley Syman and Danny Gautusa. The latter is newish to the role, having replaced Gary Peach. More on 'Peachy' shortly, the man who breathed life back into Pro Sport.

Syman has been fulltime since 2011. She is an experienced, fully qualified teacher and knows what makes young Pacific Island boys and girls tick, a prerequisite for her job, where the vast majority are brown-skinned and hailing from south Auckland. She is known, almost universally, it seems, as 'Aunty.' They all love her. But she doesn't muck around, does 'Aunty.' She demands the highest standards and in return you will win her respect and loyalty. Cross the line or step out of line, you are gone.

"If you take the day off to go and see your 60th cousin off to Samoa at the airport, then you will get fired," says Syman.

"They don't just spend a year here eating their lunch, developing their muscles and helping out occasionally."

A glance at the 2016 schedule shows how busy they are, with myriad activities, from refereeing junior school matches, to helping out with logistics at Blues and Auckland match days, to special events such as helping at the Jonah Lomu service at Eden Park last November. The Pro Sporters' work on that day was unobtrusive but highly appreciated.

They will get a solid background in event management and work towards Levels 3-4 of the National Certificate in Sport and Recreation. An astounding 98 percent of those who complete the one-year course pass. Not all, however, finish the course. They might not hack the pace, or they might be kicked out, but often they must leave to financially support their families.

Syman is impressed with the maturity of the 2016 intake of 20 (30 is the maximum) and has high hopes for their futures.

"We suspect that more than 50 percent this year will go to further tertiary study next year. It used to be that they went to school to eat their lunch, or someone else's lunch, and play rugby. They didn't make the connection. Here they are virtually living at Eden Park, the holy grail. The learning experiences are based on rugby experiences, whether it be refereeing or coaching. They know it, and love it. They apply that knowledge a lot easier."
The education component is paramount, but the rugby side is not neglected, and the Pro Sporters have been for fitness sessions at Keven Mealamu's gym in Takanini or provided live opposition at Auckland or academy trainings. They invariably turn up in good shape for their club season.

Nutrition is an area where specialist advice may have hitherto been scarce in their lives. Nestle, one of the major sponsors of Pro Sport, offers this, and the trainees get to prepare a three-course meal for ARU staff at the end of the year. Last year, one boy took the advice on board so well he lost 50kg (down from 156kg!). So the trips to the bakery become less frequent, while the almost total reliance on Mum's big Tongan feed becomes less of a factor.

"They will be faced with so many opportunities. It is up to them to grab every opportunity that comes their way," says Syman.

"Everyone in Auckland Rugby is playing their part in developing these young men and women, and trusting them."

It all started in 2002, the brainchild of Heath Mills, now head of the New Zealand Cricket Players' Association, and Daniel Faleolo, and was run under the umbrella of Mt Albert Grammar School, where Mills taught. At first it was very much targeted at at-risk youth who were into their rugby. Some of the early graduates were Census Johnston (2002), John Afoa and Jerome Kaino (2003), Isaia Toeava (2004) and David Smith (2005). Pro Sport's rugby team would have been tough to beat in those days.

By 2004 Gary Peach was starting to get involved, helping out informally at first. His son Victor went through the course.

Peach left Pro Sport last year and is now the chairman of the Northland referees' association. He was brought up in Otara, has a strong affinity with and understanding of Pacific Island youth and culture, loves his rugby, and has coached and managed many teams. He managed Pat Lam's 2007 Air New Zealand Cup championship-winning side.
Peach still talks about Pro Sport in the present tense, such is the passion and respect he has for the programme.

He and Syman pushed the BLUE mantra: Belief, Leadership, Unity, Excellence. That governs all the Pro Sport standards.

Peach says that by 2007 Pro Sport was starting to get run-down and wasn't hitting the educational goals it should have been. It was on the verge of collapse, but Peach pleaded for 12 months' grace as he took the job as education manager. There was no NZQA compliance, no moderation, no detailed files or records. Peach was on the blower several times a day to Syman, then teaching at Aorere College. Eventually, the ship was righted, the course is now fully compliant and Syman was employed from 2011. But it all nearly went belly-up again in 2013 when the Ministry of Education dropped the bombshell that all private tertiary education funding was to be cut. Auckland Rugby, to its credit, believed in the programme and decided to fund it (along with some help from New Zealand Rugby, who sees Auckland as a strategically important rugby area). The union reaps the rewards when these young men go into the work-force or go up the rugby ladder, hopefully within the province.

Peach and Syman are big on discipline, and this is a key point he emphasises. His mentor, Sir John Graham, was a stickler for discipline, and Peach never compromised with Pro Sport.

"I was a bit up in your face with discipline, but our standards are the best in Auckland rugby. Discipline breeds success and we've had some huge success with Pro Sport. But the education is the most important thing for Aunty and I," Peach says.
The attrition rate was not high, but still noticeable.

"Those who got drop-kicked, got drop-kicked real quick. We are always prepared to listen, but we do not tolerate liars, dishonesty and thieves. We teach the life skills that are required to go to work. If you don't front, you get gassed. That's what happens in the work-force. You have to mirror that, otherwise there's no credibility and you're wasting your time.

"Turn up every day in the right gear and on time, do as you're told without arguing and be a good person. We don't get 100 percent success, but the percentage is pretty high."
Peach is especially proud of Sia Koloamatangi, a Tongan girl who showed real promise at rugby. She fell pregnant at school.

"We made her realise that the baby was not a barrier to her succeeding."
Koloamatangi trained as a teacher after doing Pro Sport in 2011, passed her degree and is now teaching OE at Opononi Area School.

Syman tells of one of the 2016 trainees, who comes from a tough background. He hasn't missed a day and doesn't want to return to his old ways and become another statistic. His progress in three months delights her and makes her work worthwhile.

Peach has never left Pro Sport. He just doesn't work there anymore. He still stays in touch, often via Facebook, with many of the nearly 300 trainees who have been through the course. But he has left Pro Sport in the capable hands of Syman and Gautusa.

It is Gautusa who visits the schools, spreading the Pro Sport gospel and helping facilitate applicants for the following year's intake.

It has come a long way from the days when it was jokingly referred to as Bro Sport. Now you take your cap off when you walk into the room. You talk properly, you show respect, and you do not just spend all your time on those infernal phones. In return you will get loyalty and an AT Hop card to get into Eden Park every day. Most days you will arrive at 8 or 8.30am and you might finish at 3.30pm. There are days in lieu if you work at an Eden Park match. One Pro Sporter is also in the Auckland Academy, so he hardly has time to pause for breath as he does training sessions at 6am or after 5pm.

"For these young men and women, they are living the rugby dream, but also developing their occupational pathway," says Gautusa. "Knowing the work Peachy and Aunty had done was one of the good things for me coming into Pro Sport. It was important for me to help carry that legacy on. It's pleasing to see guys make a success of their rugby careers, but it's even more pleasing when they have a career ahead of them, coming out as good young people and being able to make those good adult decisions."

Syman says they work on the theory 'You've won nothing yet.'

"Peachy also worked on the theory that 'It's not how you start, but how you finish.' We've continued that."

Outside observers have been pleasantly surprised at what they see.

Auckland Rugby President and former All Blacks halfback Bruce Gemmell was blown away by the outcomes of Pro Sport.

"I went to their end-of-year function last year not really knowing a lot about it. What these people are doing just blew me away. I'm told these kids went from little sheep at the start of the year who didn't look people in the eye and didn't speak well. I thought the first one who spoke was part of the management, so well did he speak, but he was one of the lads," said Gemmell.

Pro Sport is an obvious source of pride for Auckland Rugby. And with good reason. The Pro Sporters are doing a lot, they are visible, and they are doing it well.

For further information about Pro Sport and what the trainees do, visit the ARU Pro Sport Facebook page.