By CHRIS RATTUE
How do a team like Bay of Plenty revive their fortunes?
The formula has many parts, but one tonic involves turning around the lives of talented footballers who have struck out on earlier visits to the plate.
Whereas the big-city teams are less inclined, or don't need to take risks on such characters, middle-of-the-road unions such as Bay of Plenty can find rich rewards.
A case in point is the Steamers' hard-nosed openside flanker, Nili Latu, who was in the thick of the action in the brilliant Ranfurly Shield defence against Waikato at Mt Maunganui.
Chiefs coach Ian Foster must have been impressed on Sunday, as the 22-year-old Latu stole the show from Waikato's Scott Couch, who also backs up Marty Holah in the Chiefs.
The shield match might be another turning point for Latu, who does odd-jobs to make ends meet and turned down Tonga last year so he could pursue a New Zealand Super 12 contract.
At 95kg, Latu has to play above his weight but says: "I play with my heart ... I don't let anyone talk me down. I believe in myself."
The former Auckland schoolboy star's career was derailed when he felt those around him did not believe in his ability during a two-year stint in Wellington.
The Sacred Heart student was a member of the 2000 New Zealand schoolboy team that included future All Blacks Joe Rokocoko, Sam Tuitupou and Ben Atiga.
While Rokocoko and the others rocketed into fame and fortune, Latu hit the skids in Wellington, where he was on a three-year academy contract.
Latu, who played for Poneke, never felt at home in the capital.
He says the union lost interest in him with "excuses" that he was too small. By Latu's own admission, his response was not great.
By the time he arrived in Bay of Plenty, he had something of a wild reputation.
Latu says: "I'd just left school and was flatting ... I went down there and got on the booze. When I started getting fed excuses, I drifted off a little bit.
"I was always out on the weekend - I knew I wasn't going to get a go at NPC level. I just said to myself 'I'll play club rugby and drink like everybody else'. I tried to make it, but no one seemed to be backing me. I was wasting my time."
Latu says former Bay of Plenty captain Clayton McMillan noted him when he filled in for the Bay at a 10s tournament in Wellington.
As Latu contemplated a move back to Auckland, the Steamers - battling after two years of promotion-relegation playoffs - gave him a rugby lifeline.
"Wellington said 'he's yours for $2000'," says Steamers manager Craig Morris.
The deal was done, and Latu has hardly looked back.
After openside Rodney Voullaire was injured in a club match, Latu grabbed his chance in last year's trial win over Waikato and has been the first choice since.
He has had to make technical adjustments including to his tackling, and Steamers' adviser Kevin Schuler has played a big part in this.
Latu was often dazed making tackles because his feet weren't planted correctly.
Most importantly, he found the motivation to "keep my head down" and work hard, with his family providing the inspiration.
His mother, Mata, had been in his ear, wondering why her son could not emulate Rokocoko, Tuitupou and Atiga.
"There was a little pressure from my family, particularly my mum. That was a turning point," he says.
And just before last year's NPC, Latu's beloved grandfather, David, who brought him up in Tonga until Latu was 10, died.
"I was really cut up, gutted," Latu says.
"I wish he was still alive. I wanted to make him proud. He'd appreciate it, seeing me doing something useful with my rugby career.
"His death made me think about my own life. You never know when you're going to go. You've got to make the most of it while you are here.
"It motivates me before games. I'm thinking of my family and my grandfather all the time. That's my driving force."
And of course, there is the Wellington experience to call on.
"Wellington opened my eyes. It's paying off now."
NPC points table
By CHRIS RATTUE