A new club rugby competition hopes to showcase some of the best young talent the country has to offer – and possibly find the next All Black great.
As clubs around the country come to terms with a disrupted club rugby season due to the pandemic, as well as rising financial pressures and dwindling participation numbers, 19 clubs across the three Auckland unions have come together to develop a new club and community led competition to give a platform to young players around the city.
The competition is called the Sky Sport Super Club Rugby Under-21 Championship, a four-week tournament featuring four conference teams made up of four Auckland regions: the West Rangers, Central Kings, East Toa Moana and Southside Rising.
The Super Club Rugby U21s kicks off on 8 October and will be broadcast live on Sky Sport, with a double header played each Thursday where each team plays each other once, until the grand final on 29 October where the best two teams will square off for the newly minted Sir Michael Jones trophy.
Tournament director Tony Lafotanoa says the competition is an opportunity to showcase some of the hidden gems in New Zealand rugby, while presenting young players with an opportunity for representative experience.
"The focus is for the clubs to use their opportunity with their players to give them some representative experience, to help with the club's recruitment and also to help the clubs just become more resilient in these uncertain times," Lafotanoa says.
"And obviously with Covid having cut the season short – and actually it cut the middle of it out as well – it's become a real light of hope for many clubs as they try to stay in front of the minds and hearts of our players to come back to club rugby next year. Especially those at schools that they can see now that there's a fantastic opportunity through their clubs to be involved with this Super Club Rugby Under-21s Championship."
'Make club rugby great again'
The struggles of clubs around Auckland, intensified by the worldwide road block that is Covid-19, has been well documented.
But the Super Club Rugby U21s hopes to "restore the mana" of club rugby, and maybe even discover the next hidden talent in New Zealand rugby like All Black Brodie Retallick, who was passed on after first XV only to be discovered at a small rugby club.
The competition is the brainchild of Lafotanoa, a passionate advocate of club rugby who took it upon himself – with the help of several big names in the rugby community – to develop a competition that gives young players an opportunity to test their skills against some of the best in Auckland at a national stage and on television.
"This is a good shot in the arm to help restore mana and pride in playing club rugby," says Lafotanoa. "And recognising that it has a very important position in the journey and life of a rugby player. We want to make club rugby great again.
"One of the things that became obvious to me was there's a lack of tribalism that has always been there, and we've seen it in the past, that can be reignited again. And the way I looked at it was instituting a geographical competition based on the clusters of clubs in Tāmaki Makaurau that sit in certain areas of Auckland."
Many of the players involved will be those who have missed out on the one-track road to professional rugby: from first XV to rugby academies, then to provincial teams or Super Rugby.
But as countless examples show, not every player develops at the same time or follows the same trajectory towards rugby success – with competitions like this one giving a platform for the forgotten many in the crowded rugby scene.
"Most of them will be the ones that otherwise have never been given an opportunity because they're not in any academy or system," says Lafotanoa. "So this is really catering towards the majority of our club players, who some would argue more than warrant playing at representative level but for whatever reason [haven't had the chance to].
"Often times things like developing later in their rugby career; we're talking about players that haven't matured fast enough through first XV and things like that, coming into their late teens but their now starting to hit their straps. It's definitely going to help with identifying and highlighting those players who hadn't been picked up earlier on."
'The most impressive club player I've seen'
Perhaps the most significant example of this is All Blacks superstar Retallick, who over the last decade has been one of the best players on the planet.
The story of Retallick is an example to every kid playing rugby who hasn't made it through the traditional professional pathway to keep at it in the club scene.
After bafflingly getting passed on by the Canterbury system following his time at Christchurch Boys' High School's first XV, Retallick decided to move to Hawke's Bay to continue his career in club rugby.
He eventually landed in Central Hawke's Bay Rugby Club, where he was discovered by then-Hawkes Bay coach Tom Coventry – and would quickly become one of the most dominant locks in the sport.
"It's amazing that Canterbury hadn't picked him up because they seem to be quite skilled at picking up anybody else," says Central Hawke's Bay Rugby Club patron and former president Peter Fleming.
"He epitomises leaving school, going to a small country club, and proving at all levels that he was an All Black of the future. And it didn't take him very long to reach that level.
"Last season he had a game for us and he always comes back. He's a great, loyal club man."
Fleming believes the current first XV system can create unrealistic expectations for students – and often leaves many late bloomers behind amid the country's crowded churn of talent.
"They come out with high expectations out of college rugby and that's been made worse, dare I say it, by first XV rugby being on TV. It's given them a false sense of a future and a false expectation of where they go from school."
Fleming says there are "definitely" other players like Retallick out there who may not have been picked up by academies: "These boys who develop a bit later need to be still nurtured by their local community."
"The other really classic example, and a brilliant one that's resonated for us out west, is DJ Forbes," adds Lafotanoa.
"DJ Forbes wasn't a schoolboy star as such, he wasn't in any elite programme or picked up early, but what he was as history unfolded was the epitome of someone who developed late, but in those ensuing years, worked on his skill sets and his fitness and conditioning and maturity, and when he came of age, the rest is history – he went on to lead New Zealand and is one of the most successful All Blacks sevens captains in history.
"That's a wonderful example of the kind of players that we want to help support and no doubt will be given that opportunity in this championship."
A platform for Pasifika players
The new competition also hopes to shine a light on the Pasifika rugby community, something that former All Black Eroni Clarke says hasn't been served particularly well in New Zealand.
"As soon as this idea was presented to me, it really gave a wonderful way to promote the under-21 competition," Clarke told Pacific Media Network.
"Here's a competition that can offer different pathways because I think the normal pathway in terms of furthering your sport or rugby, it didn't really serve particularly Pasifika very well.
"We've got the biggest Pacific population in the world and I think it's something that's really great that Auckland Rugby, together with Counties and also with North Harbour, that they're taking a real lead in this."
Lafotanoa says the competition will focus on highlighting young players and coaches who are often under-represented in New Zealand sports media.
"Well over half of the percentage of players in this competition will be of Pacific Island descent and heritage. I'm going to be working hard on making sure their whakapapa, lineage, where they've come from, their village, their family, those things are highlighted.
"Because I think that's something that mainstream media don't really grasp in terms of how do you connect with those who are following someone in an immediate or extended family, who's excelling in a sport.
"Pacifika is actually quite a small place in terms of the connection … I really want to highlight that because I think that would honour not only that player, but that family. And help to connect even more the support base for that boy that's made that conference team from the club of origin."
Ultimately, the competition will be a showcase of the best of club rugby in Auckland.
"We want to inspire our players that have gone through the school system to come back to club rugby and continue their journey on at club rugby level in adult rugby."