Early next year, 2013 Marlborough Boys' College first XV captain and head boy Atunaisa Moli leaves to take up a rugby contract in the North Island. Express rugby writer Clay Wilson chatted to arguably Marlborough's most promising young rugby player at his home in Blenheim, reflecting on a exceptional year and discussing the challenges that await as he takes the next step in his burgeoning career.
It has been a huge year in the life of Atunaisa Moli, and 2014 is not likely to be any different.
The burly 18-year-old student led the history making Marlborough Boys' College first XV rugby team to Press Cup glory and was also the college's head boy in 2013.
And if that was not enough, his consistently powerful performances for the MBC side saw him not only earn a starting spot in the front row of the New Zealand Secondary Schools' team, but also saw him pick up a two-year contract with the Waikato Rugby Union and make the NZ under-20 training camp.
Despite all he has achieved on and off the rugby field, the gentle giant with the big smile remains as modest and humble as ever as he reflects on an "unforgettable" 2013, preferring to focus on team rather than self.
"No I didn't [expect to have such a big year]. My goal was to make the [NZ] Secondary Schools' team, which I achieved, but I didn't think I'd get a Waikato contract or get into the NZ under-20s camp.
"One of my other goals was to install that pride back into our school and I guess winning the Press Cup was something the boys could look to. It showed the other schools you don't need to be rich or have scholarship or imported players to make a good rugby team. All you need is what you've got, a lot of ticker and hard work.
A member of the rare group who gain first XV status in just their second year at high school, Moli led by example this year and was hugely respected among his peers as both a captain and head boy. He believes knowing it was his last year in the MBC team inspired him to perform, but said ultimately it was the side's "team over anything" mantra which was key to their success.
"It started in year 10 when I first made the team. As you go through the years you learn more and more and when you get to your last year it means so much more. Those leaders have to step up and keep the others on track and it definitely worked out.
"There was a few of us from the start of pre-season who knew that we could do it, we just needed to get the younger guys to believe that . . . within our little first XV everyone had a common goal and a common motto. We stuck to that and believed in that and it took us through the whole season."
After such a blockbusting season for MBC, Moli's selection for the NZ schools' team was well deserved. A text message during a church service informed him he had made the squad and was "just the best feeling." And while trainings were more intense and the coaches more demanding, pulling on the black jersey for the first time, singing the national anthem and doing the haka were feelings he could not describe in words.
Moli was the only starting prop in New Zealand's thrilling win over Australia to play the whole match and said thinking about home and the team he was representing kept him going.
Such were the nature of his impressive performances during his first three years in the MBC side, Moli had interest from provincial unions even before his major successes this year. Early in the season he was approached by Waikato and, after he was flown to Hamilton for a look around, a couple of members of the union came to Blenheim to watch MBC's 22-10 victory over seven-time Press Cup champions Christchurch Boys' High School. Moli received offers from other unions, and would have loved to have taken the one he got from Tasman, but eventually decided Waikato was the right way to go.
"Tasman offered me [a contract], but the only thing missing was the tertiary education. If there was a uni here I definitely would have stayed with Tasman, but it's about what is better for me and my future . . . there's always got to be a plan B and with rugby it's the old saying, ‘you never know and you might get injured'. You always need something to fall back on.
"I had a look around [Waikato] and I could see they were really passionate about their rugby. Also, I have plenty of family up there I can fall back on."
As someone whose "heart is here in Marlborough," Moli was definitely not ruling out turning out for the Makos one day. For now though, he is looking forward to his first trip to his parents' homeland of Tonga for Christmas and the new year, before embarking on the next chapter in his life in Hamilton.
Understandably, he is feeling a bit nervous about leaving his parents and seven siblings at home in Blenheim. However, Moli is also excited about the new challenges and opportunities awaiting him as a rugby player and a student.
As one of several big young signings for Waikato and a prospective member of the Waikato under-20 side, he knows his training regime will be "very intense." He also realises he will be in the gym far more than the half dozen times he squeezed in this year and said improving his nutrition would be another big change, "I'll have to cut down on my island food, and no takeaways."
With the challenges that lay ahead next year, Moli is not looking too far beyond 2014, but making it all the way is still the ultimate goal.
"My main focus is just developing my body and getting the little things right before I think about the big picture, [but] definitely, the big dream is still to pull on that black jersey and play for the All Blacks. I just have to learn to train even harder, but still stay grounded."
Given the attitude that has got him so far and how much he appreciates what Marlborough has donefor him, it does not appear doing those very things are going to be an issue for this mature, softly-spoken teenager.
"I love where I come from, I love Marlborough and what it stands for. I'm just really thankful to the community for what they've done for me.
"I want to say a massive thanks to each and every person in the Marlborough community for their support. Not only for the school, but for me as a person."
- The Marlborough Express
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