Nuggety halfback moving up — pass by pass

Otago players in the New Zealand under-20 rugby team (from left) A-One Lolofie, Josh Whaanga and...
Otago players in the New Zealand under-20 rugby team (from left) A-One Lolofie, Josh Whaanga and Dylan Pledger. PHOTO: NZ RUGBY
Dylan Pledger did not get to spend much time with Aaron Smith but he would very much like to follow in the great halfback’s giant steps.

Pledger is one of three Highlanders and Otago players in the New Zealand under-20 squad.

They assembled in Wellington on Sunday before heading to the Sunshine Coast for the inaugural Rugby Championship under-20 tournament, when the Baby Blacks will get to play South Africa, Argentina and Australia.

Pledger, the Kaikorai halfback and former King’s High School captain who is joined by Taieri centre Josh Whaanga and Zingari-Richmond hooker A-One Lolofie, said there was already a buzz in the squad.

"We’ve only just come together as a full unit but you can already feel it’s a good bunch of boys," he told the Otago Daily Times.

"We’ve got a good connection together and it’s good fun."

Pledger spent two years in the New Zealand Schools team — a rare honour for a player, especially one from Otago.

No fewer than 21 members of the under-20 squad have come out of the schools programme, so there are plenty of familiar faces.

He will battle for the No 9 jersey with Crusaders under-20 halfback Ben O’Donovan and Blues under-20 halfback Riley Williams.

"We owe Riley a coffee because he beat us in a kicking competition the other day," Pledger joked.

The Highlanders young guns have not had much of a chance yet for one-on-one time with under-20 coach Jono Gibbes, but Pledger said the former Chiefs and Maori All Blacks lock had made it clear the players just needed to focus on their roles.

There is no real history to build on as this tournament, designed to better prepare the southern hemisphere nations for the junior world championship, has only been introduced this year.

Pledger said the goal was simply to play some good rugby to build for the world tournament and aim for three wins in the process.

He has been enjoying his career progression, following the two years in the New Zealand Schools team with inclusion in the Highlanders high-performance programme, meaning he got a chance to hang with the big boys in preseason and is very much seen as a Super Rugby player of the future.

"I’m just taking it one step at a time and taking the chances that I’ve been given with both hands.

"Obviously, every kid’s goal as a little boy is wanting to be a professional rugby player, and I’m just taking it step by step to try to get to the Highlanders.

"Training with the Highlanders has definitely been an eye-opener, and just working with the coaches as well to try and make our games better."

An obvious trail has been blazed.

Pledger is, like the peerless Smith, one of the smaller players on the scene and could do a lot worse than try to emulate the Highlanders and All Blacks great.

"I think I just missed him before he headed overseas. It would have been cool if he’d had one more year to work with him a little bit more.

"I feel like, for every 9 in the country, he’s definitely an inspiration and what every halfback is trying to get to."

Pledger has also excelled in touch, representing New Zealand at under-18 level, but is concentrating on rugby for now.

NZ U20

Rugby Championship schedule

May 2: v South Africa

May 7: v Argentina

May 12: v Australia