With George Whitelock leaving Canterbury to play in Japan, Willi Heinz is now responsible for leading the province to their seventh consecutive NPC title. He speaks to RICHARD KNOWLER.
As Willi Heinz hunched over and tried to retain his body warmth during this interview on a bitterly cold day at Rugby Park, one of his early mentors walked past and reminded him to give the Linwood club a plug.
It just so happened that Heinz, Canterbury's new captain, had already discussed the significance of switching clubs before being offered a professional rugby contract.
That mentor, Scott Hansen, is now one of the Canterbury assistant coaches and still works as a development officer at Linwood.
He, probably as much as anyone, will have taken some satisfaction from watching Heinz develop his skills as a halfback and leader, as could former Canterbury academy boss Matt Sexton.
It was Sexton, a former Canterbury and Crusaders hooker, who told Heinz he needed to decide whether he should leave the club he registered with after leaving Burnside High School.
''I had a season with Burnside but they had a couple of other halfbacks there that they preferred at the time, so Matt Sexton, who had picked me up in the pre-academy, said to me that I needed to be playing club footy every week,'' Heinz recounted.
''I had a bit of a relationship with Scott Hansen through the Canterbury under-19s and he was, and still is, the RDO [rugby development officer] at Linwood and got me across there.
''He's been a big influence on my footy development over the past seven or eight years.''
Heinz, now 27, wasn't recognised as being a star during his younger years but made his debut for Canterbury against Waikato in Christchurch in 2009 and played for the Crusaders the next season.
The presence of Andy Ellis, who has skipped this year's National Provincial Championship to play in Japan, initially prevented him being a regular starter, but in recent seasons they have shared the No 9 jersey and last year each made 12 appearances for Canterbury.
Heinz, who has since clocked-up more than 50 appearances for the Crusaders and earned 46 caps with Canterbury, never played with Ellis who also attended Burnside High School but was three years his senior.
''I was probably a little bit of a late bloomer, I didn't make Canterbury rep teams going through high school until I was in the under-18s and started getting involved more,'' Heinz says.
''From there I was lucky enough to get involved with academy and that's kind of a good pathway to get through.''
When he left school Heinz attended another learning institution to pay the bills, working as a sports co-ordinator at Hagley Community College.
At 93kg Heinz is strong enough to thrive in contact, possesses a fast pass and can put heat on ruck ball if he sees a plum waiting to be picked.
His leadership skills were developed when he worked as the co-vice captain with Ellis last season and also led Canterbury when George Whitelock, who has signed to play under Robbie Deans in Japan, was unavailable.
Robertson offered Heinz the job after the Crusaders lost the Super Rugby final to the Waratahs a fortnight ago.
Losing Whitelock wrenches a major chunk of experience from the side.
The loose forward appeared in all six title wins and had the knack of empowering the side to believe they could win the competition under previous coaches Tabai Matson and Rob Penney.
So what sort of captain will Heinz be - a frothy-mouthed ranter or the silent type who just grafts away and lets the ebb and flow of the game take its course? Neither, he says.
If he needs to fire-up, he will, but as a halfback he is often issuing instructions anyway.
''When I look at the likes of George and Reado [Kieran Read], they are guys who go out and play really well individually. That is really important to me.
''I don't have to be the one delivering the messages all the time. Matt Todd, for example, is our defensive leader and Tyler [Bleyendaal] is our tactician out on the field. It doesn't have to be the same voice all the time.
''I am determined to do a good job with this.''
QUICK FIRE Q & A
1. What was the most memorable game you watched as a kid?
When Ben Blair sliced past Christian Cullen and kicked the conversion to give Canterbury a (31-29) win over Wellington (a Ranfurly Shield defence at Lancaster Park) in 2001.
2. Favourite player when growing up?
Yes, I am married to Sophie Bateman, who is (former Crusaders and Canterbury midfielder) Tim Bateman's sister, and we have three kids.
4. Let's imagine you are in danger of getting a yellow card from your wife and cook up a storm to get back in her good books. What's the recipe?
Probably something Thai-inspired. A Thai salad, a tom yum soup or something like that. For dessert it would be anything to do with chocolate. That would sort that out.
5. Did you play other sports?
I have always been a pretty keen sportsman; tennis, touch, swimming, cricket and golf. I love golf but I don't keep a handicap, I just like to cheat my way around.
6. What is the worst rugby ground you have played it?
I didn't love the one in Levin.
7. What is the fiercest team talk you have had to endure?
It was from Tabai Matson when we played Bay of Plenty at the Mount in 2011. He doesn't often get angry but when he does you know all about it.
8. Favourite subjects at school?
PE. Outside of that - probably English.
9. What did you want to do when you were at school?
If it wasn't being a rugby player it was either a policeman or a fireman.
10. Do you think there is life in outer space?
- The Press
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