By Reuben Mama
The best secondary school rugby players across the country will finally get to pull on a coveted black jersey for the first time, though it'll be in front of the bedroom mirror rather than the changing room, following the naming of a 26 strong New Zealand Secondary Schools team.
With no test fixtures possible this year due to covid-19, the 50 best players split into two teams and squared off against each other at last month's Barbarians Under-18 development camp, with the NZ Schools squad selected after.
"They'll get sent a black jersey and a letter, said NZR High Performance Talent Identification Manager PJ Williams.
"Hopefully when they're old and crusty like myself and have reached the pinnacle of their sporting career they'll tell their sons and daughters I was a reasonable rugby player when I was at school. It's really important to keep those traditions and a lot of kids might not take the next step for certain reasons, but I think it's a great memento and something they can look back on with honour regardless of whether they go on to be an All Black or professional player."
There are two players who have graduated from last year's NZ Barbarians Schools team into the NZ Schools squad, in Christchurch Boys' High School lock Jamie Hannah and hooker Monu Moli of Marlbrough Boys' High School, who's the brother of All Blacks prop Atu Moli.
Moli is joined by James Mullan and Hanz Leota as the hookers in the squad, while Hannah's named alongside his Christchurch Boys' locking partner Fabian Holland, with St Kentigern College's Allan Craig rounding out the second row while his schoolmate Will Bason is one of five loose forwards chosen.
UC Championship winners St Andrew's College, Super Eight victors Hamilton Boys' High School and defending Auckland 1A champions King's College each have three students representing their respective school.
STAC's halfback Joel Parry, barnstorming midfielder Isileli Saumaki and loose forward Torian Barnes have earned selection, while halfback Noah Hotham, fullback Oliver Foote and prop Mason Tupaea are recognised from Hamilton Boys.
Impressive St Patrick's College Silverstream midfielder Riley Higgins has been rewarded for an outstanding season in the Wellington competition, while first-five Ajay Faleafaga out of Auckland's St Peter's College has continued to develop into an all-round 10 after showing early signs of his potential when he helped his school become national champions as a year 11 in 2018 and winger Blake Makiri of St Peter's School Cambridge showed the makings of a top class finisher during the Barbarians match, scoring four tries against a number of his new squad mates.
The Crusaders region is producing a number of workhorse loose forwards and St Bede's College number eight George Methven and his Christ's College counterpart Fletcher Anderson are another two players with bright futures.
While the fixture between the Andy Haden XV and Alan Whetton XV was viewed by many as a trial for higher honours, Williams says the nature of this year meant it had little influence on final selection, with the comprehensive process starting in the pre-season and majority of identification done during the 1st XV season itself to ultimately whittle 800 nominated players down to the final 26.
"We have 15 position specific selectors who take those boys nominated and watch video footage of their games and rank them," Williams said. "Those rankings are done via position specific criteria which have been done over a number of years and obviously fit player profiles and what we're looking for. There's character, athletic ability, point of difference, positional skill attributes and obviously they've just got to play rugby."
Though the accolade of NZ Schools selection is a notable building block towards establishing a professional rugby career, Williams wants the players to remember their rugby journey is still in its early stages and life after high school will present many new challenges on and off the field.
"Character is probably a quarter of the entry point for talent while at school. When they leave school I think that goes to about 80 percent, because we're talking about things like is he coachable or does he have a great work ethic, do they recover really well after games, have they got a good growth mind-set, are they resilient to set backs which they will face and do they have a good life balance and are they humble. They've got a good start, but it's not the be all and end all and their true colours will come out over the next few years and whether they can handle trying to transition to being a professional rugby player."
2020 New Zealand Secondary Schools rugby squad:
Havila Molia- St Paul's Collegiate
Mason Tupaea- Hamilton Boys' High School
Rohan Wingham- King's High School
Siale Lauaki- St Patrick's College Town
Hanz Leota- Scots College
Monu Moli- Marlborough Boys' High School
James Mullan- Rangiora High School
Allan Craig- St Kentigern College
Jamie Hannah- Christchurch Boys' High School
Fabian Holland- Christchurch Boys' High School
Che Clarke- Kings College