Te Rangatira Waitokia didn’t think he was good enough to pursue rugby when he left school in 2013.
But not anymore, having been named the New Zealand Heartland Championship player of the year at the 2016 ASB Rugby Awards.
Waitokia’s ascent is a credit to the Wanganui Metro side which plays in the Manawatu Colts competition.
It was formed to keep young players in the game, in Whanganui and to develop them in the years between leaving high school and playing premier club rugby.
In Waitokia’s success alone the initiative has proved its worth.
The utility back played 1st XV rugby for Cullinane College but the sport wasn’t part of his future plans.
Instead he went to Palmerston North to focus on study and gave up rugby for 2014.
“I didn’t really think I was that good,” he says.
“I never made age group. I never really thought I was really great at rugby so I didn’t pursue it after school.”
The utility back started playing again in 2015 for Massey in Manawatu club rugby.
He started with the colts side before being promoted to the premier team.
But this year he had returned to Whanganui for work and joined the newly formed Metro team.
“It wasn’t until last year I kind of got out there and played quite well,” Waitokia says.
His on-field performance with Metro caught the eye of Steelform Wanganui coach Jason Caskey.
Two years after deciding not to play, he found himself playing first-class rugby for the biggest prize in the country – the Ranfurly Shield.
“It was pretty nerve-wracking getting out there in front of all the cameras, big players and all those guys. But I loved it. It was unreal.”
The 20-year-old earned a regular spot in the Wanganui team for the Heartland season, running in 12 tries.
Clearly, he didn’t find the step up too difficult.
“It’s probably just a bit faster,” he says. “I thought it would have been more physical. I didn’t think it was too hard.”
Not bad for someone who didn’t think he was good enough.
“From when I took that break to coming into my first game last year, it kind of just clicked. I just felt like I could breathe again and was much better. But I still didn’t think I was good enough to be where I am now.
“As I’ve progressed as I’ve kept playing on and had new coaches they kind of all part of my development.”
Playing provincial rugby alongside veterans such as Ace Malo and Craig Clare and helped him improve his game too.
“I remember watching Ace when I was younger. It was pretty unreal to play beside him, yeah, I learnt a lot of him. And Craig taught me a lot.”
Waitokia is not sure what where he’ll be playing next year. He’s open to another season for Wanganui or a move to a bigger Mitre 10 Cup union if the phone rings.
“I mean, I don’t mid staying in Heartland another year. If someone comes up with an offer I’d consider it, definitely.”
But he is set on becoming a professional.
And on the reception he received at the Rugby Awards it seems people are taking notice.
“It’s pretty cool to get people coming up to you, just for people to know your name.”