Last year Rhys Marshall was still mustering farm stock at an agricultural course in Central Hawke's Bay, weighing in at a slim 88kg.
By the time he made his Super Rugby debut for the Chiefs last Friday night he had built himself up to 104kg but played above that weight in a remarkable debut for a 20-year-old hooker who has not even played senior provincial rugby yet.
For Marshall his part in the Chiefs' 41-27 victory over the Highlanders in Dunedin was just a beginning, but what a beginning in the absence through injury of experienced rakes Hika Elliot and Mahonri Schwalger.
''It's a start,'' was how the Taranaki youngster modestly and concisely summed it up.
''It's my first game, it's a grounding for me to realise how intense and how ferocious it can get, especially down there against such a physical Highlanders side.
''It was a very big opportunity for me to put forward what I've learnt over the last couple of months and it went pretty well.''
While Marshall said the pre-season trial games had helped him prepare for the enormous step up from his age group rugby experience - his biggest previous game being a 20-minute appearance in last year's IRB Junior World Championship final for New Zealand Under-20 against South Africa - it was the way the Chiefs trained that had helped the most.
''We train as we play and there's no hiding. You can't go to a training without giving it your best shot and you expect that from your team-mates and you get it, which still amazes me, and it's week-in, week-out.''
Marshall is conscious that he is relatively small for a modern front rower and while he is now up to 104kg and building he has learnt to play a game that makes up for that lack of size.
''You have to make up for that with a bit of work rate and almost a bit of arrogance, taking no backwards step, no sideways step.''
Hard work training fulltime in the gym and the right diet is getting his bulk up.
''And it's the right stuff. There's not a lot of fat on me and I'm keeping my muscle mass up, which is all positive.''
He has no particular weight target.
''The coaches have just told me to 'get to the stage where you're the best you can be' and I feel like I'm in the stepping stones of getting there and all on track as far as goals go so I'm pretty happy with where I am.''
Forwards coach Tom Coventry always had faith in Marshall's ability and said his recruitment was the result of a lot of homework done on him.
''He's been working really hard since he came into the squad late last year, is learning off Mo [Schwalger] and Hika [Elliot] and making some big improvements in his game all the time,'' Coventry said.
''We weren't surprised how he played around the field because he's like another loose forward and the set-piece part of his game is coming along nicely.
''He was selected through a big process last year with the New Zealand Under-20s and if you get into that echelon of the best young players in the country you have to be pretty good.''
Marshall admits he came into the Chiefs not expecting any game time initially and expecting to spend his first season just being a ''sponge'' - soaking up all the knowledge of Elliot, Schwalger and the coaches.
Now he hopes the coaches will decide to take three hookers to South Africa on Sunday for the two-match tour with Elliot already back training after last week's calf strain and Schwalger a 50-50 chance to also be available to play this weekend after coming back from knee surgery.
''I am actually hoping they will take three hookers, but Hika and Mo are two awesome players, two mammoth men with a lot more experience than I and to be honest with you I'm just chuffed to be training with them and living with them up here every day, which is pretty awesome for me,'' he said.
Chiefs head coach Dave Rennie and Coventry both say there is a chance they will take three hookers to South Africa, depending on injuries which will determine the forwards/backs split in the tour party.
While the normal split for the 26 to tour is 14/12 they are leaning towards 15-11, which could provide an opening for Marshall.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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