For Aorere College 1st XV coach David Osofua, the journey to instil belief and pride back into his team is a personal one.
The Papatoetoe-based high school is in its sixth straight year in the 1A competition after re-entering the top flight through promotion in 2014, and as an old boy of the school, Osofua feels privileged to be able to help out in a coaching capacity.
"It's very special. I captained the school 1st XV during one of the very first years we made it into the Auckland 1A competition in 2009 under the coaching of Tai Lavea," Osofua explains.
"That pride is what he tried to drill into the team. We had notable old boy Keven Mealamu around us who also set some standards, but as the years went by it slowly faded away, so getting pride back into the jersey is important."
Osofua says while Aorere College face significantly more challenges than other schools, he sees no reason why they can't dream big.
"The majority of teams and schools know Aorere College isn't the flashiest school in rugby. We don't have all the resources like the majority of other schools, but what separates us from other teams and is part of our values is the willingness to train and improve. Our current coaching group got appointed late last year, so we didn't really have time to work with the team because it was during exams. We started off this year and had eight weeks to try and prepare for the competition.
"We got the boys up and running and fit and then Covid-19 got in the way, so the boys went away for eight weeks and came back and started from scratch again. Since lockdown finished the boys have had that willingness to train and improve. They've been turning up at 6.30-7am for sessions every day to do the extras and put in the hard yards."
Aorere College opened their campaign by pushing Mount Albert Grammar School, before eventually losing 21-11. In week two, they notched up a vital 20-5 victory over Tangaroa College before the two-week holiday break, and now it's De La Salle College that await them this Saturday.
"We've got a bloody talented squad. The boys still haven't realised how good they can be if they put everything out there," says Osofua.
"They're slowly starting to realise the expectations that come with 1st XV rugby and the standards. That's something we had to change within the culture amongst the team and they're starting to see a clearer picture of what it takes to compete in the 1A competition.
"I mean no disrespect, but you don't need a lion on your chest like Auckland Grammar to say you're a really good 1st XV player. They just need to believe in themselves that they can compete with the best. We want to play to earn the respect of the other teams and show we're here not to just make numbers, but to compete."
Aorere boast a number of talented individuals in their 1st XV including fullback Viliami Vailea who will join the Warriors on a three-year NRL contract after this year. Number eight Malakai Kata is the younger brother of former Warriors centre Solomone Kata, Manase Mohuanga captains the team from hooker and first year player Lotu Vea has been Osofua's surprise package at lock.
"Viliami's an all-rounder. Class on defence and attack and can create something out of nothing, is great at the back and has a big boot on him. Manase isn't a person of many words, but as a captain he leads with actions. He's really brutal in contact. Malakai is a powerhouse No 8 with abs like a back, is as quick as a winger and runs all day; he doesn't have a stop button.
"Lotu Vea is just a tall lanky kid that turned up to training, but we've given him the massive task of calling our lineouts and in the game against Tangaroa College we had a 100 percent win rate and his game awareness is really good and work rate is unbelievable."
Though the allure of the 13-man code is something other rugby schools may try to distance themselves from, Osofua is just delighted to see his boys be given other opportunities to better themselves.
"It's definitely awesome we have boys signed to league contracts next year. I've mentioned to the boys that the beauty of this competition is it opens up doors to other avenues. Those boys involved in the Warriors system bring a professional vibe to the group, so it does go a long way.
"It's still very early days in terms of the picture the other coaches and I are striving to paint for these boys, but we are making steady progress and hopefully we can deliver and make a statement this Saturday against De La Salle College."
Auckland 1A First XV Schedule 2020 Round Three – Saturday 25th July
Liston College vs Tangaroa College: Liston College Field 1 - 1pm
St Kentigern College vs Auckland Grammar School: St Kentigern College Field 1 - 2:30pm
Dilworth School vs King's College: Dilworth School Field 1- 2:30pm
De La Salle College vs Aorere College: De La Salle College Field 1- 2:30pm
Kelston Boys' High School vs Mt Albert Grammar School: Kelston Boys' High School Field 1- 2:30pm
St Peter's College vs Sacred Heart College: St Peter's College Field 1- 2:30pm