Northland's new-look south zone rugby academy will have player retention as a high priority after it was launched on Wednesday.
Northland Rugby Union's revamped academy age-group rugby programme, which saw the inaugural north zone academy opened in Kaitaia on Monday, was finalised with a ceremony at Whangārei's ASB Stadium where a group of future academy players were officially inducted.
The players are: Gill Caan-Vana, Kian Kake, Sage Walters-Hansen, Javarn Porter, Craven Martin, Tomi Baker, Noah Pride, Lucas Payne, Zack Willy, Kalani Snooks, Conner Guest, Brady Foster, Max Brunker, Troy Hona, Chad Boyed, Savannah Bodman, Georgia Brierly, Lily Murray-Wihongi, Serai Murray-Wihongi, Louisa Tuibailagi, Ocean Tierney, Tui McGeorge, Sidney Pomare, Mitikakau Morunga, Esile Fono and Kingi Herewini.
Brierly, who finished her final year at Rodney College in 2019, said she was excited to further her skills in Northland and hoped the academy would encourage others to follow suit.
"I feel like sometimes we do lose a few athletes to Auckland but now hearing about this academy, it will keep athletes in Northland, which is good for growth."
In Wednesday's presentation for players, parents and members of the rugby community, the new-look academy would push the focus to holistic development, particularly mental health, with players required to attend eight mental health sessions per year.
Academy manager Peter Hugo, also the men's academy manager, said a priority was to keep young players in the region, see them rise through age-group teams and feature for Northland's Mitre 10 Cup and Farah Palmer Cup teams.
Hugo hoped the new programme would lift Northland's current rate of players making that progression, which sat at about 50-60 per cent. Canterbury's progression rate was the highest in the country at 85 per cent.
"We want to hit 75 per cent, my dream is to do 80 per cent, but if we can turn over 75 per cent that would be great," he said.
Mental skills key for new north zone rugby academy
Hugo said the academy would be working with community rugby partnership programme, Rugby for Life, to help players find work in the area to encourage more to stay in Northland.
Blues age-group talent identification manager Shane King said he hoped Northland's new academy structure would benefit the players' overall development.
"I think it's really important because there's more to their life and development than just the rugby component ... and we want Northland Rugby Union to be really strong as well.
"Unfortunately, a lot of times in the past, academies have been all about strength and conditioning but not rugby understanding, so that's a really important part of what this academy will deliver on."
New Zealand Rugby talent development manager Ben Fisher, who flew up from Wellington to attend Wednesday's event, said Northland's geographical size would prove challenging with player retention, but felt the new north zone academy was a good move.
"I think the move to two training bases is a positive one because it means anyone in Northland has access to the expertise, a level of competition and players to train with," he said.
Fisher said the next step for the NRU and Blues was to develop a strong pathway from age-group to senior sides to encourage more players to stay in Northland.