Pride beamed from the face of Napier Boys' High School 1st XV rugby coach Brendon Ratcliffe as his troops completed training last night.
"We've got a chance to win the Super 8 title for the first time. While the Super 8 has been going since 1998 the finals system hasn't been around that long [since 2014] so this is a first too ... and we've got to the final with a home-grown team," Ratcliffe said as he pondered Saturday's final against Hamilton Boys' High School in Hamilton which will be televised live on the Rugby Channel from 12.40pm.
"All of our players apart from Rob [substitute forward Slabbekoorn] who came from Lindisfarne College in Year 10 have been at this school since Year 9. We don't know if we will see this again ... people tell us it shouldn't happen in this current environment," he said referring to the fact their main Super 8 rivals have overseas recruits who are lured to their respective schools by scholarships.
"We've got some really good players who work hard together. But we don't have any superstars. We've got nobody we can throw the ball to to get us out of jail. We achieve as a unified group," Ratcliffe explained.
The Hawke's Bay Magpies coach in 2005 and '06 and a former New Zealand Rugby Union director of player development, Ratcliffe, or "Rats" as he is nicknamed, was appointed director of rugby at NBHS and 1st XV coach in September last year. He had previously coached at F grade and 3rd XV levels at the school.
"This job is a bit like coaching the Magpies who were never short of talent. NBHS has some incredible talent. The challenge is to get alongside these young men and make the challenge theirs ... to take that natural ability to a whole new level by working hard."
A father of five children aged 8 to 17, Ratcliffe, 48, stresses to his players the importance of achieving at school first. He is a big fan of the "life first, rugby second" philosophy.
"The other stuff on the weekend is secondary to being a better young man. During my work with the New Zealand union I saw young guys coming out of secondary school who were not equipped for the real world. Things were swept under the carpet for boys who were good at sport and I saw the damage."
A fulltime coach for the past 25 years, Ratcliffe, said former All Black, Chiefs and Magpies hooker Hika Elliot was an example.
"Hika had massive ups and downs. While he achieved a lot he also left a lot unutilised and I often wonder what he could have done with more help.
"With this [1st XV] age group I've got to help them understand if they are better people off the field the better their rugby will be. The more they give of themselves the better things will be," Ratcliffe explained.
"I tell them there are times when they won't want to be in class but they have to commit to that moment. They have to respect their teacher just like they have to respect their younger family members when they get home ... all those little things add up."
Ratcliffe pointed out there were some outstanding characters within his squad. But he is just as proud and impressed with those who have been on the margins and matured.
"It is really good for the soul. I can help them pay better rugby in my sleep. That doesn't inspire me. Helping them become better young men does inspire me."
He heaped kudos on the support he has received from his co-coach, deputy principal Dave Russell, trainer and skills coach Waka Petera and the parents of his players.
"We are reaping the rewards from the work which began with the fundraising back in October for our pre-season trip to South Africa. Parents and players put in 14-hour days helping out at the two Bryan Adams concerts back in January. Then they shovelled the proverbial after the Horse of the Year Show in March. People grafted to make something happen and that's why we are doing what we are doing as a team."
The question had to be put to Ratcliffe. Has his team exceeded his expectations by reaching Saturday's final?
"No. Our expectations are getting a result against Hamilton. That will happen if we do the simple things harder and better than our opponents," he replied.
Teams for the 12.40pm match:
Napier Boys' High School: Max Anderson, Jack Sheriden, Leo Thompson, Keegan Christian-Goss, Jayden Stok, Henry Williams, Treyah Kingi-Taukamau, Luke Russell, Sam Henderson, Josh Gimblett, Ferank Lochore, Tiaki Fabish, Patrick Teddy, Tyrone Thompson, Jayden Walker. Substitutes: Forwards, Hayden Davis, Manaaki Aranui, Oskar Lynch, Rob Slabbekoorn. Backs, Angus Kilmister, Harry Devine, Caleb Turner.
Hamilton Boys' High School: Luka de Hertog, Leweni Mocekaca, Josh Calvert, Carlos Karaitiana, Tre Poihipi, Demante Murray, Cortez-Lee Ratima, Dion Keogh, Jake Ross, Tom Martin (captain), Viliame Foiakau, Josh Lord, Keelan Holten-McMullen, Nic Jeffcoat, Connar Brunton. Substitutes: Forwards, Vincent Green, Hakaiara Richards-Coxhead, Oscar Morrissey, Daniel Sinkinson. Backs, Credence Harrison, Raven-James Paekau, Nathan Healey.