Hawke's Bay Magpies rugby coach Mark Ozich praised the work Danny Toala has been doing off the field after he was named in the Baby Blacks team for this month's Oceania Championship in Australia.
"Danny's conditioning work and nutrition has been massive for him," Ozich said after hearing of midfield back Toala's and fellow Magpies, loosie Devan Flanders and hooker Kianu Kereru-Symes selections in the New Zealand under-20 side for the April 26-May 4 Oceania Championship on the Gold Coast.
"That sort of stuff has been great for him. If he goes to Australia and performs well he could make the final squad," Ozich said referring to the team for the June 4-22 world championship in Argentina.
"While Danny has benefitted from Matt Proctor not being available for Aussie because of his commitments with the Hurricanes and New Zealand Sevens rep Scott Gregory being injured Danny has been rewarded for his work with the Hurricanes and getting his fitness up to scratch," Ozich said.
"His performances with the Hurricanes Development team saw him make the next step up," Ozich said referring to Toala's selection in the Hurricanes 23 for last month's match against the Stormers in Wellington.
Ozich agreed it would have been a surprise if Flanders had missed out in the wake of his outstanding display for the Baby Blacks on the way to their fourth placing at last year's world championship in France and during his nine appearances for the Magpies during last year's Mitre 10 Cup.
"What Kianu has done has been amazing. He was a prop during his school days and in his first season out of school last year switched to hooker and took over from Ash Dixon as our Magpies first string hooker after Ash got injured," Ozich recalled.
Although Ozich doesn't know who former Magpies mentor and Baby Blacks head coach Craig Philpott is considering for his captain in Australia, he said Kereru-Symes has all the attributes for the role.
"He was a good leader at Hastings Boys' High School and leads by example. I can see him doing that role ... he would do a good job."
Kereru-Symes, Flanders and Toala were all members of the national title-winning Hastings Boys' High School 1st XV in 2017. A fourth member of that team, Magpies first five-eighth Lincoln McClutchie, missed selection for the Oceania Championship where the Baby Blacks will chase a fifth consecutive title.
"A lack of versatility may have cost Lincoln a spot. Craig has gone with one specialist first five-eighth in Waikato's Rivez Reihana and there are a couple of versatile players who can play that role," Ozich said.
"I have already spoken to Lincoln and he has taken his feedback on board. He needs to lengthen his exiting kicks, hang his re-start kick offs more and increase his physicality on defence. Other than that he drives a good game."
The Baby Blacks will play Fiji on April 26, Japan on April 30 and Australia on May 4. Bay of Plenty loosie Jeriah Mua, who was also in the 2017 HBHS team, has also been selected for the Aussie trip.
Philpott said on the back of a successful camp last month it was a hard task for the coaching group to whittle down the trial group to the 29 players selected.
"We always have such a huge pool of talent so it is never easy naming a squad. We are confident that we have selected a group of players that will gel in such a way that gives us the ability to play the style of rugby we are after."
With a handful of players returning from last year's campaign and Mitre 10 Cup experience littered throughout the team, Philpott said the amount of experience within the group is an asset.
"It's definitely a bonus when you have guys with world championship experience because that's five test matches in 19 days, so they understand the importance of a professional approach to preparation and recovery. A number of players out of Mitre 10 Cup have played through a 'storm week' so they have some appreciation of that too."
Philpott said while the 30 players that head to Australia to defend the Oceania title will form the core of the world championship squad, the door is not closed for those left behind.
"Last year was a perfect example. Injuries dictated that we called seven players into our squad. The message is clear to those players who have missed initial selection; that we need them to be ready when the call comes."
The Baby Blacks squad is:
Forwards: Naitoa Ah Kuoi (Wellington), Kaylum Boshier (Taranaki), George Dyer (Waikato), Samipeni Finau (Waikato), Devan Flanders (Hawke's Bay), Cullen Grace (Canterbury), Kohan Herbert (Bay of Plenty), Kianu Kereru-Symes (Hawke's Bay), Shilo Klein (Canterbury), Jeriah Mua (Bay of Plenty), Fletcher Newell (Canterbury), Ollie Norris (Waikato), Simon Parker (Waikato), Taine Plumtree (Wellington), Kaliopasi Uluilakepa (Wellington), Tupou Vaa'i (Taranaki), Tamaiti Williams (Canterbury).
Backs: Fergus Burke (Canterbury), Leroy Carter (Bay of Plenty), Leicester Faingaanuku (Tasman), Cole Forbes (Bay of Plenty), Taufa Funaki (Auckland), Sam Gilbert (Canterbury), Lalomilo Lalomilo (Bay of Plenty), Dallas McLeod (Canterbury), Rivez Reihana (Waikato), Etene Nanai Seturo (Counties-Manukau), Danny Toala (Hawke's Bay), Quinn Tupaea (Waikato).