It's hard to keep the smile of Stags prop JP Koen's face at the moment.
The South Africa-born tighthead has been one of the big movers during Southland's 2013 campaign, earning a promotion from the union's development team to a regular starting spot.
Named in the Southland squad at the start of the season after nine years of toiling away in local club rugby, his chance came in the fifth-round game against Manawatu with Stags skipper Jamie Mackintosh sitting out a one-game suspension for stomping.
Since then, Koen has been a fixture in the Stags' front row, switching over to the tighthead after Mackintosh's return.
"I'm pretty happy. It's been a big step, a big learning curve for me," Koen said.
"I was pretty nervous [before the Manawatu game], for a couple of days beforehand I couldn't stop thinking about it. That first game it was so fast, I had to pace myself, and I believe I've been improving with each game."
Koen has been leaning heavily on Mackintosh, David Hall, Josh Bekhius and scrum coach Clarke Dermody as he looks to build his game at first-class level.
"You just keep asking the questions and they point you in the right direction and from there I just have to do the work."
Koen arrived in New Zealand a few months before his 21st birthday with a goal of improving his rugby.
Originally from Springs, about 50km east of Johannesburg, he played for Pirates-Old Boys for nine seasons after arriving in Invercargill following a short stint in Timaru.
He started out working on a dairy farm, but was happy to trade in the 2am starts five years ago for a job at the Tiwai aluminium smelter.
During the team's recent 10-day tour of the North Island, he was missing his 3-year-old daughter.
"I talked to her on the phone and she said she was going to watch me on TV."
Unfortunately, only a few highlights of NPC rugby are shown in South Africa, so his wider family haven't been able to see him play.
Koen faces another big test in today's Donald Stuart memorial game against Otago in Dunedin.
Southland's two consecutive wins have lifted them to second-equal in the championship, one place and one point ahead of Otago.
The rush to the playoffs is looking cut-throat, making today's game vital for both sides.
Some players will also be competing for the remaining Highlanders contracts and places in the wider training squad.
Mackintosh, whose horse Julianna Belle was a winner at the Northern Southland Trotting Club's meeting at Ascot Park yesterday, will be celebrating his 100th game for the union.
Stags coach David Henderson said the team would be keen to give Mackintosh the ideal celebration for the bus ride home tonight.
"It's a big occasion ... he's a very special member of our team and has been for a number of years. We want to put on a good show for him."
- © Fairfax NZ News