Before he played professional rugby for the Bay of Plenty Steamers and in Italy, Kelly Haimona was just another rugby-mad Rotorua boy.

Now the 31-year-old is doing his part to inspire the next generation.

2017 was Haimona's final year in the blue and gold jersey of the Steamers and he is now working fulltime as the Central Bay of Plenty junior development officer.

He said he did not struggle with hanging up the boots with the Steamers because the time was right - he and his partner have a child on the way this year.

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"I think I was ready. The biggest thing was time away from family and we're about to have a baby in the next month or so, so I was transitioning into that phase of my life.

"Plus, playing professional rugby for six years takes its toll on your body."

Haimona, who is still playing club rugby for Whakarewarewa, played for the Steamers in 2007 and 2008. In 2011 he moved to Italy to play professional rugby and has represented the Italian national team on 11 occasions.

He returned to the Steamers on a two-year contract in 2016 and part of his contractual obligation was to help with the development of junior rugby players in the region. It is a role he thrived in and he leapt at the opportunity to do it fulltime.

"I just enjoy the kids, seeing smiles on their faces and just the general enjoyment kids get out of playing rugby. I enjoy the challenges that come with the job too. The kids are unique, every kid is different and every school I go to is different.

"The goal is to get kids interested in rugby and make sure if they want to play rippa rugby there are opportunities to do that. The big goal is to increase the numbers, get more kids involved and just get them active.

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Kelly Haimona in action for the Bay of Plenty Steamers in 2016. Photo / File
Kelly Haimona in action for the Bay of Plenty Steamers in 2016. Photo / File

"You see a lot of kids now on the iPads and tablets and phones. I think you lose a lot personality-wise when you're not out doing things like playing sport. Kids these days don't know what it's like to fall out of a tree or play touch on the road with your mates, it's all online. We're just using rippa rugby as a tool to get kids out there, get them active and hopefully grow rugby in Rotorua as well."

He summed up his time with the Steamers in one word: "awesome."

"The boys making the championship final against Wellington last year, and pushing them right to the edge, that was a highlight.

"The main thing I've learnt [through playing rugby] is humility. No matter who you are or where you're from, there are always bigger fish in the pond.

"It's been unreal and I'm so grateful for all the opportunities I've been given through rugby. I try to teach these kids that if they create an opportunity for themselves, take it with both hands and fly with it.

"A professional rugby career can be only 10 years, or less, and you're only one bad injury away from it being over for good. It's important for kids to realise rugby is a gift, don't take it for granted and make sure you have a back-up."