When recalling his early days of First XV rugby at Naenae College, New Zealand Institute of Sport (NZIS) graduate Willie Tufui laments:
"It was pretty challenging. There was no structure in the games and not much talent in our team."
In 2011, Naenae was languishing in Premier 3 of the Wellington Secondary Schools competition. Tufui wasn't pleased to be in Wellington.
"I started college at Gisborne Boys' High School, which is a really strong rugby school. We left Gisborne because of my dad’s job," he says.
"It's pretty much impossible to make a rep side playing division three. My goal at school, as it is now, is to become a professional rugby player and unless you made rep sides that's hard to achieve," Tufui explains.
In 2014 Willie was a member of the Wellington Under-19's who won the inaugural National Championship and the wing trained almost every day in his pursuit to become a professional rugby player. He joined the New Zealand Institute of Sport (NZIS) so he would be able to train more and become better at his sport. Willie has completed his diploma in Advanced Exercise Prescription with NZIS last year. Tufui says his study has been invaluable.
"The biggest thing I have learned from my study is the value of good nutrition. As Islanders we have a mentality, whatever is on the plate has got to be finished. You have to eat right to be a good athlete. You have to be disciplined," he says.
Balancing the demands of high level rugby and study has been another benefit. Life at NZIS is about being challenged and pursuing excellence in everything you do with honest endeavour.
"I have learned to manage my time better. I know how to train by myself now and actually get something out of it."
Willie has also been part of the NZIS High Performance Academy over the time he has been studying. This has assisted with improving his strength, power, speed and agility through the NZIS High Performance conditioning programme.
Tufui plans to extend his study of Exercise Science in 2016, which is a pathway that NZIS provides for it’s graduates.
Tufui's arrival at Naenae College in 2010 coincided with the coaching tenure of John Manuel - an experienced, accomplished and hard-noised operator who shook things up.
Increased trainings, regular runs at the crack of dawn and extensive fundraising activities brought about a culture of hard work and accountability. The on-field results improved dramatically.
In 2012 Naenae won promotion to the second division. In 2013 they ascended to the top grade. Tufui recalls the moment Naenae reached Premier 1 for the first time since 2001.
"We played St. Bernard's College in the last grading game at home and beat them 25-5. I cried after we won because I knew it would open up so many opportunities being in Premier 1."
Naenae wasn't expected to be a force in Premier one and that apparent reality was reinforced in the opening fixture against defending champions St. Patrick's College, Silverstream. Naenae was hammered to the tune of 60 points.
The following week Naenae achieved a major milestone when they beat Hutt International Boys' School 33-18. Tufui recalls the triumph.
"It was a convincing win. It was a really positive performance where everybody did their job and we gained a lot of confidence."
With nothing to lose Naenae kept on improving and when they thrashed Rongotai College 26-8, reaching the semi-finals was a very realistic prospect.
The two schools meet again in the quarter finals. Tufui describes the drama.
"It was played at our home ground on a horrible day. A huge crowd turned up because there was a lot of pride on the line for the school. Rongotai was much tougher, but a Misi Savea try put us in the lead 10-8. Rongotai had a try disallowed. We had to defend for a long-time. It was hard, but we hung on."
Naenae was in the semi-finals for the first time since 1994. They were beaten by Silverstream again, but reduced the score by more than half.
Further acknowledgement was to come when Tufui and teammate Fereti Soloa (Samoa Under-20) were selected for the Hurricanes Under-18 camp and Wellington Under-18 secondary schools team.
"We had a real special bond at Naenae. Everybody brought into the training program and what we were trying to achieve. I wouldn't be where I am today without the Naenae boys," Tufui says.
Much of 2015 was spent injured. In pre-season Tufui tore his Achilles tendon.
A year earlier he made his Premier debut for Petone against Old Boys University. His most memorable match of that inaugural premier season was the annual McBain Shield against Hutt Old Boys' Marist. Tufui gleefully reflects on what happened.
"We were down 14-3 at halftime and really struggling. Our coaches gave us a real spray and we came back to win 20-19. Winning big, tough games is the best feeling in the world. I just want to experience that feeling of euphoria again."
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