A reunion with his old defence coach at Northampton in Auckland two years ago has culminated in former All Black Andrew Blowers tackling a threat to young Polynesian footballers - handling the demands associated with professional sport.
Blowers played the last of his 11 tests at the 1999 World Cup - a tournament that remains a personal and national disappointment - and emerged unscathed, physically and mentally, when his rugby career ended at English club Bristol a decade later.
But the 38-year-old flanker realised he was among a fortunate group of players that ably managed often unrealistic expectations and intense scrutiny before successfully adapting to life once the game was up.
As his career wound down, Blowers decided he wanted to work in the community with vulnerable youth and now that at times challenging journey has carried him from West Auckland to the Melbourne Storm.
When the well-travelled openside returned home after two stints in the UK the timing was ideal as he teamed up with a mentor who had made his life easier when he joined a star-studded Auckland NPC squad at age 20 in 1995.
Legendary loose forward Michael Jones was in the process of establishing the Village Sports Academy - a non-profit organisation which combines education and sport with a focus on life skills, leadership and aspiration building for disadvantaged students - and Blowers was determined to assist.
"It worked out perfectly.
"I always had a passion for youth and having gone through the professional environment you know the pitfalls for kids at that age. They're so vulnerable, they can go one way or the other," said Blowers, who was grateful to have Jones and Eroni Clarke for support when he made his provincial debut.
A Kiwi of Samoan heritage, Blowers completed the teaching diploma required to be a tutor at the VSA and then gained satisfaction by boosting the knowledge, fitness and prospects of teens with a troubled past and uncertain future.
"They'd dropped out of school with little education, no or low self-esteem, some of the kids dropped out of high performance academies because they couldn't turn up on time.
"We caught all those sort of kids and gave them another chance through sport. They came because they knew it was a sports academy but there were some really amazing outcomes in terms of education."
The VSA's successes have not gone unnoticed, even across the Tasman where Frank Ponissi, the Storm's general manager of football, recognised the deeds of a player he schooled on defence at the Saints.
Blowers played for Northampton from 2001-05 and he reconnected with the Australian during a Storm away trip to Mt Smart Stadium.
"Two years ago we had a casual catch-up in Auckland. I met a lot of their under-20s at the hotel and a lot of them were Maori and Polynesian boys. Frank knew what I'd been doing with the VSA and said if a role ever comes up . . . ." Blowers told Fairfax Media.
Finally, in July, there was a formal approach after the NRL financed an expansion of the player welfare development programme. Blowers relocated three weeks ago and after overseeing a 6am gym session for the under-20s on Friday, he felt his background at the VSA would assist a smooth transition.
"It's the same role, I'm just working with high performance athletes. A lot of the issues are similar. They're all youths, they go through the same things."
Blowers' appointment boosts an already prominent Polynesian presence in the player welfare and development programme with Nigel Vagana, Frank Puletua and the recently-retired Joe Galuvao all heavily involved. The challenges they often confront were highlighted by the suicides of budding first graders Mosese Fotuaika and Alex Elisala earlier this year.
Blowers, who will focus on the under-16s, 18s and the Holden Cup roster at the Storm, was shocked by the duo's sudden deaths but impressed by the NRL's efforts to prevent a repeat of those tragic losses.
"The NRL is trying to address those issues so the warning signs are being seen and we can react," said Blowers.
Obviously there was no formal assistance when Blowers made the top flight after being considered a future star while studying at Mt Albert Grammar.
Blowers also nominated Pastor Gary Collins, who succumbed to cancer a decade ago, as a potential saviour.
"He was a really awesome mentor for me. I was really blessed to have someone like that," he said.
- Sunday News
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