I remember the first day I watched Michael Jones and Zinzan Brooke strut their stuff on a rugby field.
It was the 1983 Northern Region under-18 tournament at Rugby Park, Dargaville. Jones was openside flanker and Brooke switched between lock and No 8 for the title-winning Auckland team.
I said to my fellow scribes at the back of the grandstand the pair had "future All Blacks" written all over them. They nodded in approval and Brooke and Jones backed up my prediction by going on to play 100 and 74 games respectively for the ABs.
Having watched Progressive Meats Havelock North loosie Devan Flanders regularly for the past three seasons it has been easy to compare his exploits with those of Brooke and Jones at the same age. Multi-talented with plenty of speed, superb cover defence and outstanding aerial skills, Baby Black Flanders also has the necessary X-factor and potential to play for the All Blacks.
Flanders, 18, has been named as a substitute for the villagers in their do-or-die ninth round Tui Maddison Trophy clash against Northfuels Central at Anderson Park today. Spectators shouldn't be surprised if something special from Flanders proves the difference during the final quarter if it is a close clash.
It will be his first outing since returning from the under-20 world championship in France last month. He had hoped to play for Havelock North against Taradale Rugby and Sports last weekend but a shoulder injury collected in France delayed his return and today's match will be his second for the villagers after a stint off the pine in the season opener against Tamatea.
"While our fourth placing in France wasn't the result we wanted it was a fantastic tournament to be at and we had a fun environment. There were some big boys over there and the French and South African teams we lost to were the most physical and hardest opponents we came up against," Flanders recalled.
While he has yet to have his one-on-one follow up with Baby Blacks head coach and former Magpies mentor Craig Philpott, Flanders said he has fair idea what his work-ons will be.
"I have to be more physical in the collision area ... with my tackles and my carries.
"I'll still be eligible for next year's under-20 world championship in Argentina. Hopefully I'll get another crack," Flanders said.
The 2017 New Zealand Secondary Schools representative and national top four title winner with Hastings Boys' High School is hoping to play for the Magpies in pre-season games against Waikato on August 4 in Taupo and Manawatu on August 10 in Napier and earn a Mitre 10 Cup squad contract.
"I want to get a feel of what it is like at that level. I want to be prepared and playing for Havelock North will help me do that," Flanders said.
Last weekend Flanders ran the water for the villagers during their 28-24 loss to Taradale.
"We were unlucky to lose but it was a good game to watch. The boys have looked pretty sharp this week and I'm confident we can do it."
Havelock North manager Gary Revell said the hosts are thrilled to have Flanders available for such a crucial game. They are also rapt to have the Paewai twins, Kalin and Jesse, available after winger Jesse bounced back from what was originally believed to be a season-ending knee injury.
The villagers will miss the services of injured Magpies training squad lock Sam Ulufonua and inspirational captain and No 8 Phil McRoberts. In McRoberts absence workaholic lock Bronson Primmer will captain the side.
"If we can continue on from last week I'm sure we will do it," Revell added.
Central manager Ian Large said apart from injured Magpies lock Tom Parsons his side will be close to full strength.
"Taking the way we have secured some crucial wins during the second round to move into semifinal contention into account we have to go up there with confidence. I can't remember the last time we won at Anderson Park but we're not going up there to lose.
"If we can play consistent rugby and retain possession we can do it. Obviously we have to dominate up front first and that's where they're vulnerable," Large added.
Central, K9 Petfoods Clive and Havelock North all have a chance of securing the fourth semifinal spot today. With Clive expected to bag the maximum five competition points when they host bottom-of-the-table Jarks Tamatea at Farndon Park Central will need maximum points to earn a semifinal.
Should Havelock North win, and they should by at least seven points, they will also rely on Tamatea upsetting Clive before booking a semifinal. While there is plenty of interest in the battle for the fourth spot there is just as much in the tussle of unbeaten teams Auto Super Shoppe Hastings Rugby and Sports and Taradale Rugby and Sports at Elwood Park.
With both teams guaranteed a semifinal berth it will be interesting to see if they maintain the high intensity levels they have displayed in recent weeks or save petrol for the semifinals and keep a few cards hidden in case they meet in the July 28 final. If both teams bring everything to the table this clash has the potential to be as good as Hastings 40-27 win against defending champions WIT Napier Old Boys Marist six weeks ago.
In other games today NOBM should pip Altherm Window Systems Napier Technical at Park Island and the MAC-Tanalised Napier Pirate Rugby and Sports clash at Flaxmere Park could go either way but by no more than four points.