This Saturday could see the start of something big in international schools rugby sevens.
A fortnight after another successful staging of the iconic Condors Sevens tournament, the inaugural GJ Gardner World Schools 7s will be played at Auckland's Sacred Heart College.
It is more of an Oceania event than world champs at this stage, with six boys' and four girls' teams from New Zealand, Australia, Fiji, Samoa and the Cook Islands.
"This is obviously the pilot year and we want to take it to another level next year," says tournament director Phil Gaze, who also ran the Condors event at the same venue. The Condors grew from 72 teams to 96 this year over three days. He envisages 16-18 teams from next year for the World Schools 7s.
It will be a tight format on Saturday, with round-robin in the girls' section and the boys split into two pools, all televised on SKY Sport. All sides will be Under 18 (as of January 1). Australia will be bringing two strong boys' and girls' sides, fresh off the Australian national youth sevens championships, so they are match-fit and talented. Dylan Pietsch of Queensland has already trained with the Australian men's sevens squad, while Matthew McTaggart and Isaac Lucas of NSW were here two months ago with the Australian Schools (15s). Neither are short of pace.
Demi Hayes is in the wider squad for the Australian women's sevens team, while Hannah Southwell has trained with the Rio Olympic gold medallists.
"They are of a high standard. Hopefully the other teams are ready for them," says Gaze. Those other teams are the NZ Condors, NZ Maori, NZ Fiji, Samoan Barbarians and the Cook Islands in the boys' section, and NZ Condors, NZ Wasps, Samoan Barbarians in the girls' division.
The selections' premise for the New Zealand teams centred on those who had starred in the Condors, plus other prime and available talent from schools who did not qualify for that event. It is about creating a further pathway for young sevens talent at an elite international schools tournament, says Gaze.
The NZ Condors boys' side looks decidedly useful, featuring home field boys Jack McHugh and Hoskins Sotutu, both of whom starred for their Sacred Heart First XV which came close to annexing the Auckland 1A title, plus the likes of Hastings BHS' skipper Lincoln McClutchie and Feilding's Vilimoni Koroi, who gain made the Condors tournament team.
Classy St Kentigern fullback Etene Nanai is in the mix, as is Whangarei BHS' Scott Gregory. He is an interesting character. While the Condors was in full swing, Gregory was winning the senior boys' hammer and placing in the shot put and discus at the national schools athletics champs in Auckland. Gregory has big hair and is deceptively swift. A kingpin at No 10 for his First XV, he was whistled up for the NZ Barbarians Schools in October and then injuries saw him promoted to the full NZ Schools squad, where he acquitted himself well in higher company. It was enough to seal Northland's secondary school sportsman of the year honours for 2016. Not only that, but he was scoring tries last weekend for the senior Northland sevens team in the northern region qualifiers.
The New Zealand Maori side is not short of names, either. The brothers Rush, from Kerikeri, Brady and Robert, are sons of former NZ Sevens great Eric Rush, while Matene Ruawai of Palmerston North BHS and Te Ra Whata of Rotorua BHS both made the NZ Barbarians Schools squad.
In the girls' section, watch for NZ Condors player Florida Fatanitavake, out of Glenfield College, who showed her considerable wares for the Harbour Hibiscus in the Farah Palmer Cup this season. Jazmin Hotham is a young Year 11 talent with wheels out of Hamilton GHS. The Condors tournament MVP is the daughter of Hamilton BHS deputy principal and long-time First XV coach Nigel Hotham.
In the NZ Wasps side, watch for Isla Norman-Bell, out of Rangitoto and previously Hamilton GHS. She is no slouch and not so long ago played Roller Mills rugby with the boys for North Harbour.
"As the depth grows, the acceleration out of the Condors to the next, higher, levels, is happening quicker," says Gaze.
Former Fiji and Wellington prop Bill Cavubati, will manage the NZ Fiji side. Cavubati was never built for sevens, but his son Caleb certainly is, and will be one to keep an eye out for the NZ Fiji side.
The first game kicks off on Saturday at 10.20am.
New Zealand squads
Girls, New Zealand Condors:
Florida Fatanitavake (Glenfield), Georgia Ponsonby (Feilding), Kendall Buckingham (Southland GHS), Chyene Copeland (St Mary's, Wellington), Risaleaana Pouri-Lane (Motueka), Alena Saili (Southland GHS), Ayesha Leti-iga (Porirua), Lyruic Faleafaga (St Mary's), Dhys Faleafaga (St Mary's), Laruen Balsille (Feilding), Jazmin Hotham (Hamilton GHS), Monica Tagoa'i (St Mary's), Ainsleyana Puleiata (St Mary's)
Girls, New Zealand Wasps: Rina Paraone (Kaipara), Parekura Whareaorere (Te Puke), Tynelle Fitzgerald (Trident), Kenneday Tahu (Cambridge), Ora Williams (Taupo Nia-a-Tia),
Jade Tuilaepa (Tauranga GC), Koroia Heyblom (Te Puke), Lavinia Tauhalaiku (Southern Cross), Karli Faneva (Taumarunui), Stiva Tarau-Peehikuru (Kaipara), Isla Norman-Bell (Rangitoto), Jade Carter (Tauranga GC), Montessa Tairakena (Tai Wananga Kura)
Boys, New Zealand Condors: Devan Flanders (Hastings BHS), Hoskins Sotutu (Sacred Heart), Jack McHugh (Sacred Heart), Vilimoni Koroi (Feilding), Billy Proctor (St Pat's Town), Scott Gregory (Whangarei BHS), Etene Nanai (St Kentigern), Charles Lawrence (Hamilton BHS), TJ Ane (De La Salle), Leroy Carter (Tauranga BC), Lincoln McClutchie (Hastings BHS), Mosese Dawai (Feilding), Mosese Pepa (Aorere)
Boys, New Zealand Maori: Tamati Williams (Kerikeri), Matene Ruawai (Palmerston North BHS), Trent Hape (Hastings BHS), Rewita Biddle (St Peter's, Cambridge), Brady Rush (Kerikeri), Kieran Lee (Hamilton BHS), Ariki Hood-Kaitapu (Westlake BHS), Robert Rush (Kerikeri), Matangireia Yates-Francis (Rotorua BHS), Te Ra Whata (Rotorua BHS), Raiki Willison (Hamilton BHS), Will Ngatai (Tauranga BC), Grayson Whitman (St Pat's Town)