Rongotai star raring to go
Julian Savea is going places fast. The 17-year-old Rongotai College speedster will this year play his final season of school rugby but is destined for much bigger things.
Already, Savea has starred on the wing for the New Zealand secondary schools team and he is the only school player in the Hurricanes academy squad, which includes Tu Umaga-Marshall, Dane Coles, Dan Kirkpatrick, Michael Hobbs, Michael Pehi and Tomasi Palu.
Savea, who sat out Rongotai's 12-5 pre-season win over St Pat's Town on Saturday with a minor foot injury, said he had gained confidence from successfully mixing it in the academy's wins over their Blues and Chiefs opposites this year.
"It was a big step up from college stuff," Savea said.
"I marked the winger with the long hair from Waikato, James Kamana, and against Auckland I was marking David Smith.
"I went okay against [Smith. He was pretty quick and talented, but he didn't really burn me. I hardly touched the ball in that game, though."
Being the only academy member still at school is difficult, Savea said.
"It's quite full on with school and having [academy] training in the morning.
"I was doing it every day, but when school started I now do Monday, Wednesday and Thursdays."
Specialist academy coaching from Jamie Joseph, Andre Bell and Alama Ieremia had helped Savea grow his game "heaps" this year.
"My fitness has definitely gone up and I'm a lot stronger," he said.
"When I started at the academy I was benching 80kg in one rep, but now I'm doing six reps at 90kg."
Savea, who stands 190cm and weighs 104kg, plays centre for Rongotai in an attempt to get his hands on the ball as much as possible.
The school bowed out to champions Wellington College in the semifinals last season, but Savea hoped to at least match that effort this year.
Rongotai open their campaign against Hutt Valley High School on Saturday and coach Mark Potter said despite the academy disruptions, Savea had played a major part in their pre-season plans.
"It [Hurricanes academy] can be very involved and intense, but what we have to do is plan our preparations around what they're doing," Potter said.
"So if he's had a heavy training in the morning with the academy, we don't expect him to do everything that we are doing in the afternoon.
"He's a team man, so even if he has had the training in the morning he turns up with us and, as on Saturday, even if he's not playing he'll be there, he'll be supporting the team, working with them. He's one of the leaders in our group, which is quite important to us."
Potter said Rongotai were far from a one-man band, though the opposition concentrated most of their efforts on stopping Savea.
"He's a very dominant player.
"Every team we come up against seems to have a `get Julian' plan," Potter said.
"To have a player like that in your team takes a lot of heat off other people and allows them to express themselves as well.
"He's one of those players that will still do the business even with people watching him and paying him close attention - he's very strong, very skilled."
Wellington College, who have retained 10 members of their unbeaten 2007 squad, appear unlikely to be seriously challenged for the Wellington premier one title and will be eyeing national honours later in the year.
Saturday: St Bernard's v Silverstream at St Bernard's, St Pat's Town v Mana at Evans Bay Park, Aotea v Wgtn College at Aotea (Williment Trophy), HVHS v Rongotai at HVHS. All matches 2.30pm kickoff.
Coach: Richard Anderton
Player to watch: Freddie Robinson (fullback)
Last year: Premier two
Coach's call: "We're a very young team. We won premier two and got promoted, so it is a big step up because we've only got one of our starting forward pack from last year returning. We've got Wellington College first up, so it'll be a good tester for the boys but we're getting there."
Coach: Adrian Maney
Player to watch: Jayden Carter (centre)
Last year: Sixth
Coach's call: "We've got a lot of younger guys coming through, so we may struggle a bit to find our feet. Rongotai, on Saturday, will be very strong, so we're expecting a very tough encounter. Our strengths will be probably be our forwards. Even though we'll be a small pack compared to other schools, we'll be more mobile."
Coach: Thomas Perenara
Player to watch: Feka Silva (midfielder)
Last year: Runner-up
Coach's call: "We've lost a few players in key positions, so we'll be underdogs but we're just going out there to perform each week and with plenty of effort the results will come. We've lost Leon [Ellison], our playmaker, so that's a hard act to follow. We've actually probably got a better allround team but have lost some keys."
Coach: Mark Potter
Player to watch: Julian Savea (centre/wing)
Last year: Fourth
Coach's call: "We were knocked out by [Wellington] Coll in the semis last year, so we hope to improve on that this year. We want to go all the way to the final, and we've obviously got grand plans to take the final as well. We've certainly had better preparation this year and we've got a really good feeling in the squad."
ST PAT'S SILVERSTREAM
Coach: David Cournane
Player to watch: Greg Lealofi (loose forward)
Last year: Fifth
Coach's call: "We missed out on the semi-finals last year, which was pretty disappointing for us and it certainly fell short of our expectations. We are a lot more excited about where we stand at this point this year in comparison to where we were last year. We have more experience, more size and probably more skill on top of that."
Coach: Matt Lee
Player to watch: Robert Tane (blindside flanker)
Last year: Premier two
Coach's call: "We've only got two or three back from last season, so it's a whole new team. Their skill level isn't too great, so hopefully we can hang in there. The main thing is just to enjoy themselves and if we go back down to premier two, then we go back down. But the commitment is there."
ST PAT'S TOWN
Coach: Gerard Tully
Player to watch: Ben Nansett (lock)
Last year: Third
Coach's call: "We're probably a team without stars but hopefully the sum total of all the boys is quite strong. We were involved in a pre- season Marist tournament with a couple of Auckland teams, St Paul's and Sacred Heart, and we won the tournament for the first time since 2001 so that's an encouraging start for us."
Coach: Lincoln Rawles
Player to watch: Jeff Allen (tighthead prop)
Last year: Champions
Coach's call: "We had a very handy side last year and we've got 10 of those boys back who are really keen to kick on and have another good season. We've heard Mana are strong again, that St Pat's Town have been doing a lot of hard work, and the Silversteam boys look like they could be pretty useful."
The Dominion Post