Atunaisa Moli's rugby year just keeps getting better. After leading the Marlborough Boys' College First XV to Press Cup glory in 2013, the imposing prop forward was yesterday named in the New Zealand under-20 squad to compete at the IRB junior world championships later this year.
Head boy at MBC last year, Moli is now studying at Waikato University. He was recently awarded a much sought-after Sir Edmund Hillary Scholarship.
On Monday, when the final trial to decide the world championship team was played, Moli noticing a rise in intensity as the last chance for selection came around.
"It was harder this time because everybody wanted a spot in the team. Everyone was just into it."
The team was named on Tuesday morning to the assembled trialists, generating a mixture of delight and sadness.
"It was kind of daunting . . . scary, just sitting there with the other boys, waiting for your name to be called out or not called out," Moli said.
When he heard his name, it became emotional for the softly-spoken giant.
"After they announced my name I just started crying. I started training after the first camp in November and I just went from there . . . all the big shifts . . . my weight and skin folds just started to improve. The reason I was crying was because of all the sacrifices, believing in myself and that I can do it. You kinda get the good rewards for doing all the hard work."
But he also felt for the friends he had made at the camps who missed the cut, including former Marlburian Dylan Hayes, now based in Wellington. "You are just sitting next to the person that didn't make it and you don't know what to say to them because you have just got in the team yourself."
The first person he contacted was his father Sione.
"I could tell he was smiling, because he didn't have too much to say, he just said ‘give glory to the Lord, cause he's the one who got you there'."
While he has already worn the silver fern, representing the NZ schools side in 2013, Moli described the under-20 selection as "a whole different step".
He is playing club rugby for the University club in Hamilton and "loving it".
The Junior World Cup, played for the first time in New Zealand, will be contested in three pools of four teams. It kicks off on June 2, with the final scheduled for Eden Park on June 20. New Zealand will contest pool C with Samoa, South Africa and Scotland.
Tasman Makos' Marlborough-based assistant coach Leon MacDonald is backs coach. He will assist head coach Chris Boyd, of Wellington, and forwards coach Scott Robertson, from Canterbury.
Former Nelson College first XV captain and halfback and Crusaders Super Rugby player Mitchell Drummond joins Moli in the team while Nelson club fullback David Havili, who also trialled, missed the cut.
Blues first-five and returning under 20 player Simon Hickey will captain the squad. He is expected to join the campaign in May.
"We think Simon will provide some great leadership for the team given his experience both on the field and in this team environment," Boyd said.
As for the other players named in the squad, Boyd said the coaching team had been impressed with the standard of talent on offer.
Monday's intense trial match in Palmerston North gave them a strong indication of what players would bring into the team.
"We're pretty happy with the squad we have selected," Boyd said. "We've got a very hard-working and efficient forward pack supported by a very exciting backline with plenty of talent."
On playing for the first time at home, Boyd said the players were well aware that it was a rare opportunity.
"The boys are aware that this is a special occasion to be playing a tournament in our own back yard," Boyd said. "They are looking forward to the challenge of playing at home but they are also relishing the opportunity to showcase their style of rugby in front of family and friends.
"We are excited that we'll be able to play in front of our families and we are looking forward to some fantastic support from them and anyone who is a New Zealand supporter."
The New Zealand Under 20 squad is in camp until Saturday..
- The Marlborough Express