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The union has held on to most of the players who were members of the national champion Southland Boys’ High School First XV.
It has also managed to bag a couple of players who have been signed by the Highlanders for their academy, who have come from outside the region.
The year-one group features a host of local talent committing to the province, headlined by several of the victorious national champion SBHS First XV squad, including impressive prop J.J. Fisher (NZ Barbarians under-18), tireless flanker and outstanding leader Gregor Rutledge, athletic No 8 Justin Shaw, workhorse lock T.J. Gallen and skilful midfielder Jerome Buckley Fa’atoia.
Rugby Southland academy and pathways manager Scott Eade said the first priority was to ensure they identified and secured the best local talent.
"Our belief is these young men all have some of the tools required to not only pull on a Stags jersey, but potentially also play fully professional rugby if they really apply themselves," he said.
"J.J., Gregor, Justin, Jerome and T.J. have all worked extremely hard this year, what I like about each of them is their stories, as well as the challenges they’ve overcome, are all different."
Rugby Southland has also gained some players from other parts of the country.
Midfielder Tayne Harvey, of Palmerston North Boys’ High School, and outside back Josh Augustine, from Napier Boys’ High School, have also decided to align with Southland.
Harvey and Augustine have both been picked for the Highlanders’ high-performance programme in 2024 and were in national representative sides last year.
It was an exciting first for Rugby Southland having players from outside the region in the Highlanders programme commit to Southland over neighbours Otago at provincial level, Eade said.
"We have been on the lookout for quality young backs who will be a good fit in our programme while also adding real value on the park, we are excited Tayne and Josh have chosen us to help take their game to the next level.
"Our job now is to get to work and help these quality young men achieve their goals while also enhancing and building the Stags NPC squad moving forward."
Additionally, Auckland Grammar First XV captain Louis Lepionka will provide some quality loose forward balance alongside Rutledge and Shaw. John McGlashan College halfback Henry Scott and Hamilton Boys’ High School first five-eighth Wyndham Patuawa add quality to the inside backs ranks. All three will get a taste of the Stags NPC training environment in 2024.
Part of the group will be based in Dunedin while they complete their tertiary study at Otago University. They will play in Dunedin during the club rugby season, while being in Invercargill during the semester study breaks and the first class season with training assembly time which doubles as being at the same time as the Southland under-19 or Southland Development seasons.
"Many of these lads will be contenders for the Highlanders under-20 programme not only next year but for someone like Gregor, potentially the next three years," Eade said.
"With these young men completing their chosen University courses we now have an ability to retain, keep and develop a connection with Southland."
The aim is at the end of their study, players who had not yet reached a Super Rugby environment would flow into the Southland club rugby competition, he said.
New Zealand secondary schools winger Kiseki Fifita, who played for Southland Boys’ High School, is heading away to complete his Mormon mission in early 2024 so will be unavailable.
Returning to the academy are a host of local talents. Hunter Fahey, who lined up six times for the SBS Bank Southland Stags in 2023, will be back for his second year and will be pushing for significant game time in the Stags squad.
Prop Liam McIntosh, who was recently named in the NZ under-19 development squad, will be hoping to build towards a massive 2024 after his recent national selection.
Others such as first five-eighth Kaea Nikora Balloch and lock Hunter Areaiiti Burgess will enter their third year of the academy with a real determination to wear a Southland Stags jersey in 2024.