New Zealand's pinnacle event for emerging young rugby talent will take place next month at Owen Delany Park in Taupo and will once again feature a combined Heartland Under 19 team.
Now in its third year, the Jock Hobbs Memorial national Under 19 tournament showcases the best of New Zealand's young rugby players. Sixteen teams, one from each of the Mitre 10 Cup provincial unions, a second team from Auckland and the Heartland team, will compete for the honour of lifting either the Graham Mourie Cup or the Michael Jones Trophy.
The Heartland team is unique and differs from other squads in the competition because it is made up of at least one player from each of the 12 Heartland provincial unions.
Heartland U19 head coach Mark Rutene, of Wairarapa-Bush, believes that the inclusion of a Heartland team offers Heartland players something to aspire to and gives an opportunity for players to develop their game, whilst providing young players with an incentive to remain in the game after they leave school.
"There are at least seven or eight of the players who have played in the senior Heartland teams. The tournament recognises the boys who remain playing for their Heartland unions, but they can still be a part of a New Zealand set-up. It's an opportunity for them to go up to the next level and put their hand up for the New Zealand Under 20s team," said Rutene.
"However, the challenge is different from the other teams, as the squad is made up of at least one player from each Heartland union. It means we arrive on the Monday and then only have three training runs before we play our first game. Most of the other teams have been together for at least 6-8 weeks and have played half a dozen games.
"Having been assistant coach last year, I now know what to expect. Last year we opened against Counties Manukau and took a loss, but by the third game we were beating Auckland B and starting to get to know each other and getting to know what we were doing.
The tournament takes place on September 15, 18 and 21 and is part of a week-long event that starts on September 14 and includes a wrap-around development programme for the players, coaches and referees which is run on the non-game days. There are position specific workshops with Super Rugby coaches, as well as sessions focusing on player education and life skills.
A number of players at the tournament went on to play at this year's World Rugby Under 20 Championship in Manchester, including Tasman lock Quinten Strange, Waikato's Jordan Trainor and Canterbury's Caleb Makene.
"Fifty of the boys will be picked to represent the U20s for 2017. The tournament and development programme gives the boys a chance to know what they're getting into. They're exposed to the other unions, they get to know each other and are fully involved 24/7 for the week and a half.
"I'm really looking forward to the tournament, it's great to be part of it and see the positive impact on the lives of our emerging players," said Rutene.
The teams are seeded during their pre-tournament games, with the top eight playing in the Premiership group for the Graham Mourie Cup, while the other eight play in the Championship for the Michael Jones Trophy. The pre-tournament seeding matches began on August 19 and conclude on September 11, with each team in each region ranked 1 to 4. The top two teams in each region will go in the Premiership and the bottom two into the Championship.
All 400 players taking part in the tournament will vie for the DJ Graham Award for the outstanding player of the tournament.
Three matches on each match day will be screened live by SKY.
For further tournament info, visit https://www.facebook.com/NationalUnder19s or use #JHU19s on Instagram.
Wellington - Graham Mourie Cup
Southland - Michael Jones Trophy
Mitch Karpik (Auckland) - DJ Graham Award
Canterbury - Graham Mourie Cup
Counties Manukau - Michael Jones Trophy
Charlie Gamble (Canterbury) - DJ Graham Award
The New Zealand Heartland Under 19 squad is:
Loosehead props: Thomas Heywood (Mid Canterbury), Gabriel Hakaraia (Wanganui); Tighthead props: Ihaia Kerr (Poverty Bay), Dylan Gallien (Wanganui); Hookers: Isaiah Leach (Poverty Bay), Todd Parkinson (Wanganui); Locks: Caeleb Duffin (Thames Valley), Keegan Anderson (North Otago), Hamish Bennett (Wanganui); Blindside flankers: Nathaniel Payton (Horowhenua Kapiti), Bailey Stewart (West Coast); Openside flankers: Caleb Lewis (East Coast), Cairan Neilsen (Buller); No 8: Mikaere Bell (King Country); Halfbacks: Tyler Blackburn (Mid Canterbury), Moala Lasike (Poverty Bay); First fives: Cameron Robinson (King Country), Alexander Priest (Wairarapa-Bush); Second fives: Ethan Robinson (Wanganui), Devonte Stuart (Poverty Bay); Centre: Anaru Haika (King Country); Wings: Jayde Hema-Allen (King Country), Peni Rokodoguni (Wairarapa-Bush); Fullbacks: Zac Saunders (South Canterbury), Jessy Kemp (Wanganui)