FOUR players from the Wanganui region have been selected for the newly-formed New Zealand Under-19 Heartland squad to compete in a national rugby competition in Taupo later this month.
Zyon Hekenui (Ruapehu), Mitchell Overton (Taihape), James Brett (Hunterville) and Kameli Kuruyabaki (Pirates) have been named in the 20-man squad to play in the National Under-19 Tournament in Taupo between September 27 and October 4.
The other teams in the national competition will be Under-19 squads from all 14 division one ITM Cup provinces and an Auckland B side included to reflect the player numbers available in the city.
Wanganui Rugby Union chief executive Dale Cobb said the New Zealand Rugby initiative targeted school leavers who met the under-19 criteria with the aim of keeping them in the game. One key criteria is that all must have already left school.
Of the four Wanganui union players selected only Hekenui has played Heartland rugby for Wanganui and, last year, the union had to seek special dispensation for the then 18-year-old to compete.
Hekenui has also been in the starting line-up this year for Wanganui.
“We only found out on Monday that these four players had been selected for the Under-19 squad, so we went to our Heartland guys to see if Zyon could be released from duties for the week-long competition in Taupo,” Cobb said yesterday.
“They agreed to release Zyon because a New Zealand jersey far outweighed playing for Wanganui and he will miss the away game against West Coast and the home fixture with Wairarapa-Bush.
“In any event, it’s great these young guys have had their talent recognised with their inclusion in the New Zealand team. It is also a testament to the strength of rugby in the region. The new model, if it works, will give a platform for Under-20 team selection and some incentive for players to stay in the game after leaving school and even some incentive for players to remain with their own provinces yet still be eligible for a New Zealand jersey,” Cobb said.
The Taupo tournament will be played in a top 8/bottom 8 format with the New Zealand Heartland team allocated a bottom 8 place for the inaugural event.
“Some ITM provinces are running qualifying events to select their teams, while others have been together for a while. The full national Heartland squad has yet to be finalised, but will assemble on September 26. That makes it difficult because they will only have a day-and-a-half to prepare to play teams that may have been together for up to three months,” Cobb said.
By Iain Hyndman