In part two of our Super 8 Rugby Championship series we take you behind the scenes of Super 8 first XV preparations in Bay of Plenty. We catch up with our two Super 8 schools Rotorua Boys' High School and Tauranga Boys' College to see how their teams are shaping up and what they think of their chances this year. There is a lot on the line for these young men who will battle for Super 8 glory throughout 2019, as well as try to make a name for themselves as players, in the hope of securing a professional contract.
Practise as you would play
If you've ever wondered about the popularity of rugby among secondary school boys, head out to Tauranga Boys' College on a Tuesday afternoon.
It's late afternoon, school has finished for the day but for a couple of hundred young men, the work has not. Rugby players of all age groups take to the school field ready to hone their craft in preparation for a new season.
From the outside looking in it's like a big performance. Boys charging at tackle pads on one side, running sprints on the other. One age group resets a scrum while another jumps in a lineout. It may seem random but it is all aimed at player development.
Among them is the 44-man first XV squad, gearing up for another crack at the Super 8 First XV Championship title, which they haven't won since 1999.
There is a real buzz about the team as they start with a warm-up and take turns trying to kick the ball and hit a post on the full. It's a fun, laid-back way to ease into training and judging by the cheers and high fives when a player is successful, the gasps after a narrow miss, the players are into it.
A full squad training is an interesting situation because while players are working together to become the best team they can be, they are also competing for places in the starting squad.
The competition does not appear to affect them though - the camaraderie among the Tauranga Boys' College players is clear. They thrive in each others' company.
They are well drilled too. Whenever the coaches need them to come into a huddle they shout a count down. Five, four, three, two, one ... and all the boys sprint in. I assume there is some sort of punishment if they take too long and I'm confident they are keen to avoid it.
Watching a whole training session, the flow all makes sense.
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The light tackle drills, in pairs and then fours, protecting the ball at the ruck, attacking drills, plays, charging at players with tackle pads ... it's all in preparation for game time.
Finally, they run full field drills with the teams taking turns on attack. Everything they have learned throughout the afternoon - the communication, the tackling technique, calls on attack - is put into practise in a game day situation.
Throughout it all, various coaches, who clearly have the respect of all the players, rove around analysing every movement, giving feedback and further instruction, encouraging proper technique and effective communication.
"This is exactly what we will face on a Saturday. It won't always work but we have to get used to the pressure," one of them calls out.
If they approach every game with the enthusiasm they do training, maybe this will be Tauranga Boys' College's year.
The 20- year wait
Tauranga Boys' College's only Super 8 title came in 1999, the second year the championship was held. It is not an easy competition to win - Hamilton Boys', who have won 11 of the last 13 titles, are the only school who have won more than three titles.
However, such is the cyclical nature of secondary school sport, every year is a fresh start as the Year 13 players leave school and another wave of fresh blood enters the team.
Tauranga Boys' first XV coach Dan Goodwin, who has been with the team for four years, says a number of his first XV players finished school last year but that is the nature of schoolboy rugby and gives some young up-and-comers an opportunity.
"We've got a fairly fresh team this year so it's hard to get much of a gauge so far but we've got some good boys who have worked really hard in the off season.
"Schoolboy rugby is really cyclical, it goes in cycles and there are always different cohorts coming through. We're absolutely excited to see some young fellas come through and have their opportunity this year.
"We've had some trial games and we went on a camp at St Paul's and had a couple of games there."
He says there is a lot of excited energy about the current team.
"The boys are really excited actually, to get into the season. We're looking forward to getting back into it.
"I'm not too sure what our strengths will be this season yet but they've worked really hard so that's something that's definitely a strength of the boys - they're not afraid of hard work. That's all you can ask as a coach."
The Super 8 Championship is highly competitive and Goodwin says Tauranga Boys' is always looking for ways to get closer to ending their 20 year wait for another title.
"We've put a lot of work into our rugby programme, made some big changes, so you never know but it would be awesome if we did win one.
"In saying that, it's a tough comp and for us improvement is the main thing. As long as we're improving every week the outcome is the results.
"[Defending champions Hamilton Boys'] are very structured and they have a good programme. They obviously have found something that works for them and they keep doing it. They've got a lot of boys in there playing rugby".
Taking your opportunities
The Rotorua Boys' High School first XV won the very first Super 8 Championship in 1998 - the same year they finished first equal at the National First XV Championship with Otago Boys' High School.
They won their second and last Super 8 title in 2001 but have regularly finished in the top half of the table.
With the majority of this year's first XV being year 13, co-director of rugby Ngarimu Simpkins says they are at a strong point in their cycle.
"A lot of our boys this year have been in the team for two or three years now. We've been building this time nicely the last couple of years so we're expecting some reward this year. We're going to have quite a nice team.
"The bulk are Year 13, we've got about four year 12s and possibly a Year 11 boy. Over the past few years it's been quite spread out among the age groups and we've been building. It's going to be a nice change having the bulk of the team being Year 13."
He says, while this year is an opportunity to chase success, enjoyment is still key.
"We try to take the pressure away from the boys and it's just about enjoying their final year at school. There are so many things that can go right or wrong in sports so it's just about making sure we get the processes and the little things right.
"It's definitely excitement rather than pressure, it's an exciting time."
The Rotorua Boys' first XV players have been encouraged by their coaches to express themselves.
"We want to be a team known for not being afraid of the hard stuff - really cleaning out rucks and turning up week in and week out. We want to be quite a physical team this year."
The Super 8 effect
Goodwin says Super 8 is "one of the best secondary school competitions in New Zealand".
"I don't know if Super 8 is as good, or it might be better, than the 1A [in Auckland] but it's definitely a good level of footy and exposes the boys to a heap. Some of these schools are running almost a semi-professional operation around their rugby programme."
Part of the reason the competition was established in the first place was to try to break the stranglehold Auckland schools had on first XV rugby at a national level.
"This is the 21st year of Super 8 and if you look at all the stats around it, I think you could say Super 8 schools have dominated the top four [national championship] for a long time."
Players picking up professional contracts straight out of secondary school is becoming more common, but Goodwin says that is not the main priority.
"First and foremost, we're there for the boys schooling, so we don't put any pressure on the getting a contract side of it. If they progress into something, that's fantastic, but what you'll find is it's more about teaching them how to be good men.
"That's a really strong theme from the Chiefs and all the top New Zealand outfits, it's about building the character of these guys. That's what we want to do more than anything.
"They learn how to work hard, work together as a team, humility, be proud of their school and be proud of what they do. [The current group] are still young men and they'll make mistakes along the way but there are some great boys in there."
Simpkins says every team in the Super 8 competition brings a unique style of rugby which makes it "really competitive".
"I think each Super 8 school is quite unique which also makes the competition quite hard to play in. We need to combat different styles defensively and bring our own flair on attack. You're up against a different style each week and I think that's what makes our competition the best in New Zealand.
"Hamilton have good structures and you can't look past the fact they have more than 2000 boys to pick from, they have a large player base and play a really good brand of rugby."
He believes the establishment of the Super 8 Championship has been successful in making the eight schools more capable of competing with Auckland. Super 8 schools have won 10 of the last 21 Top Four National Championships.
"The results at Top Four speak for themselves. Super 8 consistently playing in the finals there speaks volumes of the quality of our competition.
"That competition is what attracts a lot of players to our school who want to play high level rugby. Playing hard rugby week in and week out, it's high performance at a schoolboy level."
The increased exposure of the players has also played a major role in many Rotorua Boys' alumni picking up professional contracts. A recent example is 2017 first XV captain Hayze Perham who signed with the New Zealand Warriors at the end of Year 13 and made his NRL debut in round seven this year.
"Hayze was a true professional at school, a great example of our rugby academy. Professional on the field but a really good person off the field as well. Always giving time to his juniors and just a great example of what we want all our boys to be. We're really proud of Hayze and all the boys that come through here."
The Super 8 First XV Championship kicks off on Saturday, June 8. Rotorua Boys' will host Tauranga Boys'.
Super 8 First XV Draw
Rotorua Boys' High School
June 6 v Tauranga Boys' College (home)
June 15 v Gisborne Boys' High School (away)
June 22 v Hamilton Boys' High School (away)
June 29 v Hastings Boys' High School (away)
July 6 v Napier Boys' High School (home)
July 27 v Palmerston North Boys' High School (away)
August 3 v New Plymouth Boys' High School (home)
August 10: Super 8 Final
Tauranga Boys' College
June 6 v Rotorua Boys' High School (away)
June 15 v New Plymouth Boys' High School (away)
June 22 v Napier Boys' High School (home)
June 29 v Palmerston North Boys' High School (home)
July 4 v Hamilton Boys' High School (home)
July 27 v Hastings Boys' High School (away)
August 3 v Gisborne Boys' High School (home)
August 10: Super 8 Final