Will Skelton returning to Auckland as a Wallaby
Will Skelton was only nine years old and more interested in playing junior league for Papatoetoe when he used to watch his cousin play for Auckland on Eden Park.
But those game days, and afternoons chasing balls at training while Brad Mika worked on his set-piece skills, still register with the Wallabies' big impact player - the second-row ballplayer Graham Henry was keen to bring home to the Blues.
Instead Skelton arrives in Auckland tomorrow for a three-day visit designed to keep Australia's hopes of retaining the Bledisloe Cup alive by ending 20 years of All Black invincibility at the scene of their World Cup triumphs.
Returning to Auckland - the city he left with parents and siblings 12 years ago - always brings back fond memories for Skelton, who now realises those hours watching Mika as a distracted schoolkid were actually time well spent.
"His character and just how he was, his attitude, his work ethic, how hard he trained ... it was good growing up looking up to someone like that," said Skelton, who played his second test - and first against the All Blacks - in Sydney last weekend.
"I try to build my character on that because he was a professional guy, his relationship with people was something I looked up to."
Now it was more likely for people to look up to Skelton, a 2.03m, 135kg lock whose lack of ball-winning at the lineout is covered by his strength, ability to draw defenders and subtlety to offload to support players.
Mika, who played three tests at lock for the All Blacks in 2002, is among Skelton's admirers, although he won't be among the extended family members who will watch 22-year-old's second-half cameo from the stands.
"I think he's in Hawaii," Skelton said when asked if he would see Mika before the game, as he did before this year's Super Rugby clash between the Blues and Waratahs on Anzac Day.
"I text him every now and then, we keep in contact. I love his comments, he always gives me little criticisms and stuff I can work on, which always helps."
Skelton does not appear to have required much outside assistance to make a dramatic rise to the Wallabies after his Super Rugby debut for the NSW Waratahs midway through last season - his dimensions alone set him apart as a point of difference before a Sonny Bill Williams-like ability to promote the football underscored his cult status.
As he reflected on a fast-moving 12 months, Skelton said he was relishing every moment in a professional rugby environment.
"I've developed better skills, my fitness and stamina have improved. Just by being aware of the players around me, I've lifted my standards to that calibre of player," he said, nominating Wycliff Palu and Sekope Kepu as his current role models.
Facing the All Blacks also inspired him to continue his development and, in the short-term, he hopes to get more than the 10 minutes of game time he received during the 12-12 draw at ANZ Stadium.
"Ewen has his own methods and I'll support that no matter what. I just try to make an impact and I thought I did that."