Fame is for the few, so don’t miss the fun

Jackson Hemopo in his All Black debut against France at Forsyth Barr Stadium in June. Photos:...
Jackson Hemopo in his All Black debut against France at Forsyth Barr Stadium in June. Photos: Getty Images
In 2008, sports reporter Jeff Cheshire attended the national under-15 rugby tournament as part of the Otago Boys’ High School team. As secondary school tournament week approaches a decade on, he looks back at what became of that class of players.

Everyone wants to find the next big thing these days.

Where is the next Richie McCaw coming from? Could that tall kid on the basketball team be the next Steven Adams? What about the Silver Ferns’ next great goal shoot?

You can bet there will be scouts looking for that potential greatness all around the country next week.

There will also be countless young athletes with big aspirations and coaches driving them to get to that next level.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with being ambitious.

Ngani Laumape (left) runs the ball up at Eden Park last Saturday.
Ngani Laumape (left) runs the ball up at Eden Park last Saturday.
But it is worth understanding just how good you have to be and how hard it is to pick who will push on. And how it should be all about enjoyment.

The 2008 national under-15 rugby tournament has produced three All Blacks out of the 370 or so players that went.

Because it was an invitational tournament, not every top player in that age bracket was present.

However, with a majority of the country’s boys’ high schools and several other top rugby schools present, it is safe to call it a high-level tournament.

Palmerston North Boys’ High School’s Ngani Laumape was the first to crack the black jersey.

He was a star at that tournament, a player possessing the whole package and one who looked to be destined for great things.

However, rather than being an all-round brilliant player, he is seen as largely a one-dimensional direct runner at the top level.

His Palmerston North Boys’ teammate Jackson Hemopo has also become an All Black. He was a giant even then, although he did not quite scream class at the same level Laumape did.

The other was Wesley College prop Karl Tuinukafe, who came from obscurity to pull on the black jersey this year.

The programme for the national under-15 tournament. Photo: Supplied
The programme for the national under-15 tournament. Photo: Supplied
All took about 10 years from the tournament to reach the pinnacle, about the age of 25.

More could be on the way, although it is hard to see where the next might come from.

A further 10 players have gone on to play Super Rugby, the majority being fringe players.

Former Highlanders centre Jason Emery — also of Palmerston North Boys’ — was one of the most established.

Back then, he was not far behind Laumape as far as ability went  — his ability to hit a gap and cut through the defence was on another level.

At Super Rugby level, that was never evident.

Others included Lolagi Visinia, Reed Princep, Matt McGahan, Alex Hodgman, Donald Brighouse, Seb Siataga, Mitchell Brown and Jono Ruru. All good players — but nothing special at Super Rugby level.

Sevens star Joe Webber, who also played for the Chiefs, was in action as well.

After that it falls away.

There were a further dozen or so to play in the Mitre 10 Cup, a few to play Heartland rugby and a handful of others to play the odd high-level game overseas.

Three others who were not at the tournament — Ardie Savea, Scott Barrett and Patrick Tuipulotu — became All Blacks from that age bracket.

The Otago Boys’ team yielded just one first-class player in Southland lock Michael McKee, who was a utility back at the time.

But they are in the minority.

As good as Laumape and Emery were, there was a third boy on their team who looked just as good — his name lost now.

He — like so many others — never made it to the lofty heights of professional rugby.

Indeed, despite having so many stars, that Palmerston North Boys’ team was beaten 24-3 in the final by a dominant Mount Albert Grammar School.

Fewer than 10 of that MAGS team went on to play at a level higher than club rugby, the most high-profile being McGahan.

Even that was far more than any other team — some of which had none.

Perhaps that illustrates the point.Being a teenage star in a lot of cases does not mean anything more than being a teenage star.

Likewise, not every All Black is going to be the best player on the best team at age 15.

For the vast majority, playing at tournaments such as this will be the highlights of their sporting careers — and there is nothing wrong with that.

Every age-grade competition can be significant in its own right.

Development is certainly important.

However, that should not prevent the kids from enjoying their game and tournament for what it is.

If the only focus is on becoming an All Black, you are going to miss appreciating a whole lot else along the way.


National U15 tournament
The class of 2008

Players at tournament: 370

All Blacks (3): Ngani Laumape, Jackson Hemopo, Karl Tuinukafe

Super Rugby (10): Reed Princep, Seb Siataga, Joe Webber, Alex Hodgman, Matt McGahan, Lolagi Visinia, Jono Ruru, Mitchell Brown, Jason Emery, Donald Brighouse.

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