Rugby: Harbour loose forward ready to fire for Under 20s

By Campbell Burnes

Hapakuki Moala-Liava'a. photo / Getty
Hapakuki Moala-Liava'a. photo / Getty

Hapakuki Moala-Liava'a is almost jumping out of his skin to get on the field for the New Zealand Under 20s.

The powerful 19-year-old loose forward has existed off a sparse diet of match-play in 2016 - for his Massey club and the Blues Under 20s - and is just back in action after a niggly hamstring injury on April 16 ruled him out for over a month.

But the North Harbour No 8, who appeared in seven ITM Cup games for his province last season, says he is now 100 percent and ready to fire, starting with this afternoon's hitout for the Under 20s against the Chiefs Development XV in Mt Maunganui. That, he hopes, will sharpen him up for the World Rugby Under 20 Championship, which kicks off next week in Manchester, England.

"I've played jack minutes this year, but I've been working hard on my fitness at the Blues," says Moala-Liava'a, having just come into camp with the Under 20s.

He can, like several of a multi-skilled loose forward group, play all three loose positions, but it seems he will be used mainly off the back of the scrum.

"The thing about us is that, if one of the guys goes down, another can jump in easily, so we're strong in that area," he says.

Competing for that No 8 berth will be Marino Mikaele-Tu'u, the 2015 NZ Schools rep out of Hawke's Bay.

"We're pretty fortunate in that we've got two big, ball-carrying No 8s in Kuki and Marino, so that's a real bonus going into a World Cup," says assistant coach Craig Philpott, who also has the reins at Hawke's Bay.

Philpott's brief is the lineouts and breakdown, areas where Moala-Liava'a can be utilised to good effect, and the player himself is enjoying some close tuition from head coach Scott Robertson, the former All Black, who could play all three loose positions in his day.

Moala-Liava'a is not averse to a bit of banter too.

"(Marino) should give the position to me, because he's got next year to savour too!" That's true, Mikaele-Tu'u is what they call "a year young", whereas Moala-Liava'a has one shot at this Under 20s gig.

He is one of 14 in the Under 20s from the 2014 NZ Schools squad, while there are also five from last year's national schools team. The talent ID pathways are clearly working.
Moala-Liava'a is, like most close observers, impressed by the raw ability in this 28-man squad.

"The talent here is crazy, so if it all comes together on the field, we can be a champion team. We don't really worry too much about the other teams. If we get ourselves right, we'll be good," he says. And of course he knows whose boots he is stepping into from the class of 2015 - one Akira Ioane, who has done alright for himself since helping New Zealand to the world title in Italy last June.

"He's done a lot of good stuff, starting off in the Under 20s, so I'm hoping to do the same as him."

Philpott knows there will no complacency in this group after falling to a rare defeat in the second Oceania international against Australia on the Gold Coast earlier this month.

"I think it stands us in really good stead going into a World Cup knowing that we cannot afford to be even a percent off with our preparation. We were probably a bit off going into that second game. We changed our team around, Australia did some soul-searching and certainly played better in that second game. We got in a position to win that game, but didn't quite close it out, so it's a good learning for us as well."

Of concern was lineout accuracy, while Waikato prop Sefo Kautai has joined the squad to bolster the scrum.

"There are seven new faces in this 28 who didn't travel to Australia, so they've got a bit to prove as well as those who travelled, who have got to show they are worthy of wearing the black jersey as well," adds Philpott.
This afternoon's match kicks off at 2pm from Blake Park, Mt Maunganui. The squad flies out for Manchester tomorrow night.

- NZ Herald

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