The New Zealand Under 20 rugby side have already lost five players from their original squad before even kicking a ball in anger.
The reigning junior world champions play the Blues Development XV in Papakura this afternoon minus locks Hamish Dalzell and Isaia Walker-Leawere, loose forward Hapakuki Moala-Liava'a, first five TJ Va'a and fullback/wing Jordan Trainor. They are all carrying short-term injuries which will rule them out of next week's Oceania Under 20 tournament on the Gold Coast, where two games versus Australia are on the menu. Whistled up as cover are Canterbury's Ere Enari, Waikato's Matt Lansdown, Canterbury's Josh McKay and Wellington's Lui Luamanu.
These are the hurdles second year head coach and former All Black Scott Robertson must deal with. He used 39 players in 2015, a high attrition rate before and during the three-match Oceania tournament, which New Zealand won, before they kicked on to win the World Rugby Under 20 Championship with five wins, two of them gritty efforts, in 19 days in Italy.
Robertson attributes the success in Italy as partly being down to the tour to the Gold Coast for the Oceania series, which took place several weeks before the world tournament. It will be a similar plan this year, the squad flying out to Australia tomorrow, hopefully with no further injuries from this afternoon's hitout.
His aims for today are clear: "It's about continuity and understanding our structures and how we play. It's about players making good decisions in space. The Blues Development will be as hard as the test matches (in June). They've rolled out a pretty strong team. We'll see if our boys have got a bit of fight in them," says Robertson, who will be assisted by Hawke's Bay's Craig Philpott (lineouts and breakdown), Taranaki's Willie Rickards (backs and attack) and Jason Ryan (scrums).
David Hill has helped out with the kicking skills.
This New Zealand Under 20 squad is laden with talent, even taking into account the current injury toll. Of note is the elevation of two of the most promising talents out of Heartland rugby, in Poverty Bay lock Isaia Walker-Leawere, now with Wellington, but last year dominating for Gisborne BHS. First five Stephen Perofeta showed his class with the ball and off the tee for Wanganui Collegiate First XV, Wanganui, the NZ Barbarians Schools, and the national Heartland XV. He has signed with Taranaki for 2016. Both he and Walker-Leawere are a year young, meaning they will be eligible again in 2017, as will, scarily, Rieko Ioane.
Robertson and his selectors have done an exhaustive process to whittle down their candidates, and he admits some high quality players missed out after three intense training camps, the last of which was last month. They just want the best players to defend their hard-won world title.
"Before we get to the World Cup, we give them all the opportunity to learn. But from our perspective, 80 percent of every coach's success is around selection, so getting that right is the biggest thing," says Robertson.
The 28-man squad for the June World Under 20 Championship in England will be named on May 9.
The Blues Development side look strong on paper, a mix of Super Rugby squad members, plus those in the wider training group and other ITM Cup players from within the region. So prop Sione Mafileo, loose forward Joe Edwards, and Japanese international midfielder Male Sa'u are starting, while they will be skippered by Northland lock Josh Goodhue, out of Mt Albert Grammar's 2013 First XV and a 2015 NZ Under 20 rep.
Today's kickoff is 2pm at Bruce Pulman Park, home of the Ardmore-Marist club.