MARINO MIKAELE-TU'U is the first to admit his play was far from the standard required at the start of the Hawke's Bay Magpies rugby season.
"It was a case of pure ownership for me. Coming off the New Zealand under-20s campaign, I saw my fitness levels and workload had dropped off a bit," the No 8 recalled.
There wasn't the same fizz or authority during the pre-season programme, particularly in the loss to North Harbour, that saw the 2015 Hastings Boys' High School star crack the New Zealand Secondary Schools team last year and the Baby Blacks this year. It's no surprise that 10 minutes off the pine in the Mitre 10 Cup opener against Wellington is the only taste of first-class action for Mikaele-Tu'u to date this season.
"I had extras to do by myself and with our Magpies fitness trainer Luke Stephenson every day. There was extra treadmill work and circuit work on Luke's block.
"My fitness is a lot better and hopefully I'll be fizzing against Canterbury," Mikaele-Tu'u, 18, said referring to tomorrow's Premiership fifth-round encounter at AMI Stadium, which will be his first starting XV appearance for the Magpies.
"I was pretty stoked when I heard I would be starting. It was good we trained in those cold conditions this week, too, because we might get some of those in Christchurch."
Mikaele-Tu'u said he knows regular game time for the Magpies is a must if he is going to gain New Zealand under-20 selection again next year.
"Re-selection isn't an automatic. Although this year's campaign went OK for me personally, I have to try and prove myself. There hasn't been any panic ... I knew my chance would come as long as I did those little extras."
The Hawke's Bay Sevens rep agreed taking on the unbeaten defending champions and marking one-game All Black Luke Whitelock, who will captain the hosts, will provide "a real test of where I am at. It should be fun".
It will be a case of sink-or-swim for Mikaele-Tu'u. But he won't have to look far for inspiration.
His former school's 1st XV, pipped 14-13 by Mount Albert Grammar in last weekend's national secondary schools final after winning all 17 of their previous matches, will provide plenty.
"They've done pretty good and as an old boy, it was good to see. I'm sure we will see some of them pop up in national teams during the coming weeks," he added.
Mikaele-Tu'u's replacing of Fa'alemiga Selesele is one of eight changes Magpies head coach Craig Philpott has made to the starting XV used in Wednesday night's loss to Auckland. Some may question that logic, considering the vast improvement the Magpies displayed. However, Philpott said the changes had been pre-planned.
"By the time we play Southland on Thursday night, we will have played five games in 19 days. We have to balance the workrate of the guys but, at the same time, come up with a competitive team."
Some of the players who have been given a break to freshen up will join the team on Monday to prepare for the Invercargill match. Some may leave the squad on Monday for a spell.
Other changes see Ricky Riccitelli switch from loosehead prop to hooker, Tolu Fahamokioa replace Riccitelli in the No1 jersey, former All Black lock Ross Filipo is in for Mark Abbott in what will also be his first Mitre 10 Cup start of the season, Abbott replaces Trent Boswell-Wakefield at blindside flanker, Ellery Wilson comes in for Brad Weber at halfback, Ryan Tongia replaces Matt Garland on the right wing and Garland replaces Tongia at fullback.
With regular captain and hooker Ash Dixon on the subs' bench, Abbott will captain the Magpies.
Reducing the missed tackle and turnovers conceded counts remain the biggest challenges for the Magpies.
Against Auckland the Magpies missed 30 tackles, three more than their visitors and conceded 16 turnovers, two more than the city slickers.
Canterbury head coach Scott Robertson has made seven changes to the starting line-up used in their win against Northland last Saturday.
In the forwards, Nathan Vella will start at hooker and Ben Funnell shifts to the reserves. Scott Barrett pairs up with Hawke's Bay age group product and former All Black Dominic Bird at lock and David McDuling will prepare to make his Canterbury debut off the bench.
Jack Stratton gets his first start at halfback with Mitchell Drummond out for the season with a broken leg. Ere Enari will provide halfback cover. Richie Mo'unga returns to the 10 jersey this week, and Rob Thompson, the star of Canterbury's win against the Magpies last season, will play outside him at second five. Johnny McNicholl moves back to the wing and Jordie Barrett steps into the fullback spot. Nathan Earle and Ben Volavola join Enari as backs cover on the pine.
HAWKE'S BAY MAGPIES: Matt Garland, Ryan Tongia, Jonah Lowe, Tiaan Falcon, Mason Emerson, Ihaia West, Ellery Wilson, Marino Mikaele-Tu'u, Tony Lamborn, Mark Abbott (c), Ross Filipo, Geoff Cridge, Ben May, Ricky Riccitelli, Tolu Fahamokioa.
Substitutes, forwards: Ash Dixon, Jason Long, Mason Kean, Ben Hamelink, Fa'alemiga Selesele.
Backs: Chris Eaton, Billy Ropiha, Shannan Chase.
CANTERBURY: Jordie Barrett, Johnny McNicholl (vice captain), Jack Goodhue, Rob Thompson, George Bridge, Richie Mo'unga, Jack Stratton, Luke Whitelock (c), Matt Todd (v-c), Tom Sanders, Dominic Bird, Scott Barrett, Siate Tokolahi, Nathan Vella, Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Substitutes, forwards: Ben Funnell, Alex Hodgman, Oliver Jager, David McDuling, Reed Prinsep.
Backs: Ere Enari, Nathan Earle, Ben Volavola.