Five Bay of Plenty players are among the next wave of New Zealand Sevens talent who are about to set off on an international rugby tour to Japan.
Bay of Plenty's William Warbrick and Peni Lasaqa will assemble with their All Blacks Sevens Development team and Tynealle Fitzgerald, Mererangi Paul and Kiki Tahere will meet their Black Ferns Sevens Development squad this weekend to travel to Okinawa, Japan, to play five matches over two days against the Japanese national sevens teams.
The tour follows trials last month, with players selected to trial after their performances at Red Bull Ignite7 and, or the National Sevens in Tauranga in December. Warbrick and Paul were two of the six Red Bull Ignite7 MVPs picked from 96 hopefuls at the event.
At the time, Warbrick - a former Rotorua Boys' High School student from Kawerau, said he would love to be able to represent New Zealand in sevens one day.
"It'll be pretty awesome to wear the All Blacks Sevens jersey one day," he said after Ignite7.
Whakatāne's Mererangi Paul said at the time she was "shocked and surprised to get named in the top three" at Ignite7.
NZR Sevens Development Manager Chad Tuoro said the development programmes were a crucial part of the national sevens structure.
"Our development programmes are promoting players into the professional sevens environment and it's vital to have that next tier of players ready to step up into the World Series," Tuoro said.
"Being able to give these players international experience is an incredible opportunity and going to Okinawa gives us a look at where our sevens teams will be based for the Olympic Games.
The Black Ferns Sevens Development team is coached by Jimmy Sinclair and Victoria Grant.
After playing in Japan they will also take part in an invitational tournament in Auckland in March.
The All Blacks Sevens Development team is coached by Peter Nock and Johnny Weston.
Taylor Haugh, who made his All Blacks Sevens debut in Cape Town in December, is named in the 12, and newly contracted player Niko Jones will also travel with the team.
"We know these players have been working incredibly hard to earn their place in this side, and some of them had choices to play elsewhere. This tournament allows us to test these athletes and their ability to perform under the pressures of an international sevens tournament," said Tuoro.
NZR chief rugby officer Nigel Cass said this was an exciting time for all these players.
"This next tier of players have an important part to play in our high performance programme as we look to the Olympics and beyond. These players have all worked hard for their selection, and it's an exciting opportunity to test them at an international level."
Meanwhile, also in the All Blacks Sevens Development squad is controversial Wellington rugby player Losi Filipo, who was sentenced to nine months' supervision in 2016 for assaulting four people, including two women, and ordered to attend alcohol counselling and a course on living without violence.
Nicki Nicol, who leads New Zealand Rugby's Respect and Inclusion program, said Filipo's selection was approved by NZR, and came more than three years after he started the rehabilitation programme.
"He has shown remorse, commitment and determination to make positive changes and rugby continues to play an influential role in Losi's life. NZR does not condone violence and is actively investing in programmes that support safer communities. "
The All Blacks Sevens Development team:
Losi Filipo (Wellington), Dan Fransen (Canterbury), Taylor Haugh (Otago), Jacob Kneepkens (Taranaki), James Little (North Harbour), Josh Moorby (Waikato), Curtis Reid (North Harbour), Adam Simpson (Wellington), Te Puoho Stephens (Tasman), Te Rangatira Waitokia (Manawatu), William Warbrick (Bay of Plenty), Peni Lasaqa (Bay of Plenty).
The Black Ferns Sevens Development team:
Kendall Buckingham (Canterbury), Amy du Plessis (Otago), Dhys Faleafaga (Wellington), Tynealle Fitzgerald (Bay of Plenty), Tysha Ikenasio (Auckland), Isla Norman-Bell (Auckland), Rina Paraone (Waikato), Mererangi Paul (Bay of Plenty), Cheyelle Robins-Reti (Waikato), Kennedy Simon (Auckland), Grace Steinmetz (Canterbury), Kiki Tahere (Bay of Plenty), Kalyn Takitimu-Cook (Manawatu).