Emery a Highlander rookie among royalty
Even as he copes with the rigours of the hardest pre-season training he's ever done, Manawatu midfield prodigy Jason Emery looks around him and marvels at where he is.
The Highlanders' rookie still can't quite believe that he has been selected in a squad which includes the likes of Brad Thorn and Andrew Hore, and more specifically Tamati Ellison and Ma'a Nonu.
Ellison's off-season shoulder surgery could mean Emery gets more game time with the Highlanders this year than originally planned, while he has grown up idolising Nonu's destructive capabilities.
The thought of asking either of them questions at training, or calling plays outside them in a game - heck, even rooming with one of those All Blacks when they return to the Highlanders next month after their hiatus - is almost too much for the 19-year-old to get his head around.
"Probably, at first I think I'll be a bit scared to talk to them but maybe in a few weeks I'll try and pick up a few things," Emery said.
"Mostly it will come from just watching them.
"I'll have to end up talking to them one way or another.
"It just doesn't feel real running alongside those guys - even Colin Slade.
"But I've got to get my head around it because I'm here for three years.
"I've been watching Ma'a for years and to think that I might be playing with him, I just feel lucky.
"I'm pretty gutted that Tamati [Ellison] isn't going to be there because he's someone that I could have learnt off. I'll be pushing for a place and making sure I'm ready if I get a chance."
Emery was a surprise catch by the Highlanders, who have signed him on a three-year deal, but in hindsight he's the perfect long-term project.
Three years in the Palmerston North Boys' High School first XV team, including one as captain, two years in the New Zealand secondary schools team, and 10 games for Manawatu in his first year out of school, Emery was also a star in the New Zealand under-20 team who finished runners-up at least year's Junior World Cup, and the NZRU's 2012 age grade player of the year.
"There are probably a few people who don't know my background, or where I'm from," Emery said. "Hopefully they find out about me soon.
"It was just big for me to play ITM; to find out that Jamie was interested in me was great.
"It's what I've always wanted to be - a professional rugby player.
"I want to give it a real good crack.
"It's good to know the Highlanders have that confidence in me and hopefully in the next three years I'll pay it back.
"Hopefully I'll end up being a better player and a better person as well."
Emery comes from solid sporting stock.
Warriors and Kiwis great Stacey Jones is a second cousin, although the pair have never met, and Kiwis centre Maunga Emery is a great-grandfather.
Growing up in Wellington, Emery was a fan of All Black fullback Christian Cullen.
The pair shared the same player agent and met once but Emery was too shy to speak.
Later he closely studied utility Luke McAlister's play, particularly his ability to provide a kicking option in the midfield.
Any increased involvement with the Highlanders this season could mean Emery misses out on a chance to avenge last year's World Cup loss with the under-20s.
Being a member of the first New Zealand team to lose at that tournament still rankles.
But he may find that the Highlanders, who also have Phil Burleigh and Shaun Treeby as midfield cover, need him to stay at home.
Meanwhile, Waikato fullback Trent Renata has been added to the Highlanders' squad as injury cover for Declan O'Donnell, who will miss the entire Super Rugby season with a shoulder injury.
Renata played every game for Waikato in last year's NPC.
He brought up his 50th game for the province against Canterbury.
While he has played most of his rugby at fullback he can also play first-five.
- The Southland Times