You do not often hear a rugby player deliver an ode to the game as part of a formal acceptance speech.

But if you were at the Auckland University Rugby Club on Wednesday night to see Te Ariki Te Puni officially take his place as the latest recipient of the John Drake Memorial Scholarship, you would know he has the makings of a young man who will go far in whatever he chooses to do in life.

For the short term, the 17-year-old, fresh out of Palmerston North Boys' High School, where he was head boy, is going to show his rugby wares for University and get stuck into the first year of a law and commerce degree at the University of Auckland.

Te Puni can play loose forward but admits that hooker is his preferred position, though, at a pinch, he could slot into prop. Thus far in the 2017 season, he has appeared for the University Under 20s at both No 6 and hooker.


He spent two years in the Palmerston North BHS First XV, playing in two Polson Banners against Napier BHS, and in the always competitive Super 8. Last year one of his teammates was NZ Schools skipper, loose forward Brayden Iose. Te Puni was good enough to make the Hurricanes Under 16s, 17s and 18s. Throw in his clear leadership qualities, and he was on the pathway for the Manawatu Turbos.

But he decided to put that pathway on hold for the next five years.

"So originally I was looking at studying law and engineering, but if I wanted to have a real crack at rugby, I wouldn't have the time on my hands to study law and engineering, so I opted for law and commerce. That left me with Otago, Victoria and Auckland as options. In rugby I might have had an easier pathway if I had stayed in Palmy, but you kind of reach the stage in life where you need to move out," says Te Puni.

"I wasn't a drinker, so I wasn't too keen on Otago. Vic was just down the road, but my sister was up here in Auckland last year, so that gave me a bit of confidence with what to expect."

So he applied for this scholarship, inaugurated in 2010 in honour of the late, great John Drake, who played his club rugby for University and studied at the tertiary institution. It covers the recipient's tuition fees for the duration of their degree and they will play their rugby for the club. Since 2010, some high quality individuals and players have won the nod, though three have had to retire from rugby due to injury.

Inaugural winner Matt Matich is now 25 and playing some consistently good rugby for Northland, which has helped seal his selection in the NZ Barbarians Provincial XV to face the Lions in June. Mitch Karpik, another flanker, is showing his considerable wares for the Chiefs. Halfback Marius Tonu'u (the 2015 winner) is in the University premier squad, and has again won selection in the NZ Universities. Joint 2016 winners Antonio Ripata and Awanui Morris are both doing well with their studies and playing senior or Under 20s rugby for the club.

"I almost look up to these guys as mentors," says Te Puni, of the 2015-16 recipients.

"Especially Awa, who is also studying commerce. It's been good to get their insight into what I can expect, mainly with my studies and how to make sure I'm tracking right.

"It was quite overwhelming when I received the scholarship, exciting to give me that opportunity to really have a go at rugby and making sure I have that back-up outside of rugby. I'm passionate about my academics."

It was Morris who delivered a waiata in honour of Te Puni on Wednesday and welcomed him warmly to the club.

Thus far Te Puni is finding the trick of maintaining balance between study, rugby and social life not too taxing, though it will get busier.

"Because I've had a few years of very intense workloads, it's come a bit easier. I feel like I've got more time on my hands. It means I can really focus in on my studies and rugby."

He has his rugby goals, which include Auckland Under 19s this season, and NZ Universities in the future. But he is, importantly and unusually for a teenager, prepared to be patient.

"I'd like to work my way up. Making the prems is something you have to earn. I need to be playing decent rugby. I've had a couple of sessions with the prems and have been impressed with the professional way they approach training."

Auckland University has always been a players' club with a unique culture. Rugby is important but it is not everything. Players busy themselves with study or work outside of training and games.

"It's a family-welcoming club. Coming from Palmy, I was a bit anxious about coming to Auckland, but from the first day I've been treated with the utmost respect and it's made the transfer really easy and given me that backbone and foundation up here," he says.

He is not the only Manawatu boy playing at University. Former Turbos and All Blacks Sevens loose forward Antonio Kirikiri scored three tries on debut for the prems last weekend. He is still contracted to Manawatu, but the union is happy for him to play a higher level of club rugby in Auckland until the Mitre 10 Cup.

A lot of people are backing Te Puni to do well in his rugby and studies. Patron of the club and the scholarship Sir John Graham - yet another loose forward in a club which has produced a conveyor belt of talented sixes, sevens and eights down the years - presented Te Puni with his scholarship on Wednesday. Graham loves seeing young men achieve highly in their chosen fields. One suspects he will not be disappointed with Te Puni.

Previous JDMS recipients:
Matt Matich (2010)
Sean Brookman (2011)
Sam Viskovich (2012)
Tim Cleaver (2013)
Mitch Karpik (2014)
Marius Tonu'u (2015)
Antonio Ripata/Awanui Morris (2016)