Leni Apisai to captain under-20s after breakout year

By Campbell Burnes

Leni Apisai.
Leni Apisai.

A breakthrough 2015 season has led to Wellington hooker Leni Apisai assuming the captaincy of the New Zealand Under 20s.

The 20-year-old started 11 of the Lions' 12 games as they reached the ITM Cup Championship final and now finds himself tasked with following in the footsteps of Chris Smith, Aaron Cruden, Tyler Bleyendaal, Luke Whitelock and Atu Moli who have all led the Under 20s to world championship glory.

"I was overwhelmed when I got the news. I didn't have a lot to say, trying to get my head around the whole thing, not only being in the squad, but to be captain is just a huge honour," Apisai says.

He is light on captaincy experience - having led just the Wellington Under 16s in 2012 and the Hurricanes Development on occasion - but he has some recent big-match experience to call upon, having started the first three Hurricanes matches in 2016 as cover for the injured Dane Coles and Motu Matu'u. That was a steep learning curve for the young man from Porirua, but he had already made his mark with the Lions.

"It was an awesome opportunity to start and get a bit of game time with the Lions, growing as a player and as a man off the field helped a lot," he says.

Apisai says he has loved the Hurricanes' environment, but is equally enjoying this team, playing with guys his own age.

"It was awesome to get some game time, with Colesy and Motz going down in pre-season. I've had to step and show I was there for a reason."

While his Hurricanes' website profile lists Coles as his worst roommate, he wasn't about to further put the boot into the world's best hooker, off whom he has learned a huge amount.

Apisai has taken the time-honoured pathway of NZ Schools, shining in the national Under 19 tournament (2014) and then cracking the Under 20s, though his NZ Schools representation - out of Wellington College after his early secondary years at Aotea College - came in 2013. There are some 14 in this NZ Under 20s squad out of the 2014 NZ Schools, while a further six are just six months out of the 2015 NZ Schools. Included among that number are the Scots College quartet of prop Alex Fidow, first five TJ Va'a, and threequarters Peter Umaga-Jensen and Malo Tuitama, all brilliant runners and ball handlers.

"I played a lot against those guys. It's good to finally have them on our side because they are good players alright," enthuses Apisai. Also joining him in the Under 20s is fellow Wellington hooker Asafo Aumua, another who cracked the 2015 NZ Schools, though out of St Patrick's Silverstream.

Since last month he has been on strict rugby rations, just 60 minutes for his Norths club and a run for the Hurricanes Development XV. He was due to be in the 22 for the Rebels clash in Melbourne a few weeks ago but fell ill.

Yesterday Apisai led the New Zealand Under 20s in their hitout against the Blues Emerging Players, a narrow victory in Papakura. He got through close to an hour. Expect him, unless the Hurricanes have a hooking injury crisis in South Africa this weekend, to run out in the No 2 jersey in the first Oceania series international against Australia Under 20s on Tuesday night on the Gold Coast.

Apisai was on the Gold Coast a year ago, playing against Japan in the opening match of the Oceania series, but a concussion put paid to his progress. That taste of international rugby has merely whetted his appetite.

"Because I missed out last year, I always wanted to go to a World Cup with the New Zealand Under 20s. This opportunity makes us hungrier, and we want to bring it back home like the boys did last year. There is huge pressure on us, but we are seeing it as a great chance to put our mark on the international stage."

*There were no major injury concerns for the New Zealand Under 20s after yesterday's match, though fullback Caleb Makene was heavily iced. They fly out to Australia this afternoon.

- NZ Herald

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