"The culture of the team is really strong. I think it's a lot better than what it was at the same time last year," warns Jack Casey-Pickering captain of the Mount Albert Grammar School First XV.
The National Top Four champions start their season on Saturday with a hit-out against 1A runners up Sacred Heart College. A replay of the Auckland final so early in the season is a serious start.
"It's not a fully serious game, it's three-30 minute periods serving as Sacred Heart's First XV trial and a chance for us to try new combinations. That's not to say we won't be taking it seriously." Casey-Pickering explains.
MAGS have been in serious mode since January 20 when their squad assembled for pre-season training. Next week they play Westlake Boys' High School in a similar arrangement before tackling Hastings Boys' High School on April 15. This match is a replay of the National Top Four final, a curtain raiser to the Blues v Hurricanes Super Rugby clash at Eden Park and MAGS’ last outing before they jet to Japan for the Sanix World Youth Invitational Championships.
"Everyone is looking forward to Japan. We’re taking 30 players and have worked hard to raise money for the airfares, the rest of the expenses are covered. We had a fundraising night at the Ponsonby Rugby Club and auctioned off some items. Ironically the biggest seller was a signed Lionel Messi shirt which was pretty cool,” Casey-Pickering says.
MAGS have 18 returning players from their 30-man squad last year. No.8 John Latu who started every game last year is expected to be a key figure, but what about the rest of the squad?
"We've lost a lot of size in the forwards, but our backs are just as good if not better than last year." Casey-Pickering responds.
Casey-Pickering is a lock. He started most games in 2016, but suffered a cruel injury in the 1A semi-final tearing a quad muscle which left him on the sidelines for three weeks. He missed the Auckland decider, but returned for the National Top Four climax.
"The Auckland final was torture. It was really tight and they put us in a box at Eden Park instead of letting us on the sideline. The Top Four final was won by our defense, but Hastings were really physical. I wasn't match fit, but I battled through." Casey-Pickering recalls.
Casey-Pickering did better than battle. He was selected for the Auckland Under-18's. His skill and maturity has seen him elevated to skipper. How will Casey-Pickering handle the leadership duties?
"Even though I wasn't a senior player last year I tried to add my voice when I could. I think the key to being a good captain is balance. You have to build a good relationship with your players, but also lead by example with your game."
Casey-Pickering captained the MAGS Under-15's when they won the Auckland title and were runners up at the Nationals to Hamilton Boys' High School.
Mount Albert Grammar School won the Blues 10s Tournament for the third year in a row at the QBE Stadium in Albany on Saturday, 25 March.
MAGS defeated De La Salle College 13-5 in the final, which was played as a curtain-raiser to the Super Rugby match between the Blues and the Bulls. Albertian and Blues member Sonny-Bill Williams congratulated the team after their win.
MAGS was Captained by Jack Casey-Pickering, and Noah Foster was named Player of the Tournament.
Results: v Kelston Boys High School: won by default; v Whangarei Boys High School: won 54-0; v Rangitoto College: won 70-0; semi-final v Westlake Boys High School: won 15-7; final v De La Salle College: won 13-5
The MAGS team has three more pre-season games before they head to Japan to represent New Zealand at the Sanix world secondary schools rugby championship.
Saturday, 1 April, 10.30am: v Sacred Heart College at Sacred Heart
Saturday, 8 April, 12pm: v Westlake Boys High School at Westlake
Saturday, 15 April, 5pm: v Hastings Boys High School at Eden Park, curtain-raiser to the Blues v Hurricanes
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