Some pundits may find it hard to accept the veteran tag Jayden Rihia has in the Hastings Rugby and Sports sevens team.
Although only 22, Rihia is in his fifth season with the Hawke's Bay champions, who will be the province's only team at the New Zealand Marist Sevens tournament in Hamilton today. Defending champions Napier Old Boys Marist won't be attempting to retain their title at the six-team event because of the accommodation shortage created by fans attending the Hamilton leg of the IRB World Series circuit but will play at the national club sevens tournament in Auckland on February 8.
Sweeper Rihia had his first season with the Hastings team during his final year at St John's College. Pivot, 2010 world champion Baby Black Star Timu, 28, is the other veteran.
"We've got heaps of young players who have fitted in really well and are full of energy," Rihia said.
Among them are outside back Gideon Kautai who had two years in the Hastings Boys' High School 1st XV and Sam Walton-Sexton who made the New Zealand Māori under-18 team last year out of Karamu High School.
An EIT electrical course student, Rihia, has yet to represent Hawke's Bay at national sevens level but has been in wider training squads and has attended regional sevens tournaments in the past.
"The goal this year is to push for a spot at nationals. I know I have to increase my communication more and step up as a leader. With all of these young players in the Hastings team I've got a good opportunity to do that," Rihia said.
He pointed out the Jeff Karika-coached Hastings team's main goal this summer is to retain their Hawke's Bay title in Waipukurau on February 16.
"Obviously we want to do as well as possible in Hamilton and the experience we get there should prove beneficial when we get to Waipukurau."
Hastings Rugby and Sports will take on Ardmore Marist, Tongan Development and St Michael's of Rotorua in their first three games today. The results of these games will determine what position they play off for.
Rihia uses the summer sevens campaign to prepare for the 15s season. With last year's Hastings Rugby and Sports first-string halfback Folau Fakatava expected to be away for most of the club season with Highlanders Super Rugby duty, Rihia has the ideal opportunity to be the regular starting halfback again.
"I'll slot in anywhere I can to help the team but I prefer the No 9 jersey."
In 2017 I was called in as injury cover for the Magpies. I spent a few weeks with the team but never got a first-class game. Getting one of those is definitely a goal for the future ... I've had a sniff and I want more," Rihia said.
While sevens has been his main priority in recent weeks, Rihia said he has been impressed with the pre-season 15-a-side training sessions being put in by the Hastings Rugby and Sports players.
"After last season's finish, the hunger is there to do better this year," Rihia added, referring to top-qualifiers Hastings' exit in the Maddison Trophy semifinals with a 32-29 loss to fourth qualifiers and eventual winners Clive courtesy of a penalty try conceded in injury time.
New Zealand Marist Rugby Federation's Hastings-based general manager Neil Murphy said it was a pity only six teams have entered today's tournament.
"The accommodation shortage had a lot to do with it. But it's also the timing of the event because with the national inter-provincial sevens being played in December now we might have to look at a different time of the year for this event."
The Hastings Rugby and Sports team for Hamilton is:
Star Timu, Jayden Rihia, Daniel Safati, Tom Agnew, Jardine Chung Ching, Kapo Afa, Angelo Mufana, Gideon Kautai, Sam Walton-Sexton, Tom Charteris, Fale Matamata, Tasi Faavae.