Few were better in 2022 in that regard than Wellington No.8 Peter Lakai. The 19 year old didn’t make any New Zealand secondary schools’ sides but is now well known on the national radar having made the most carries and fifth most tackles of any player in the NPC as the Lions won both the Ranfurly Shield and overall Championship title.
Lakai was also a member of the New Zealand Under-20’s who convincingly won the Oceania Rugby Under 20 Championship in July.
What are the best ‘breakout’ seasons in Bunnings NPC history? Here are six contenders.
Steve Pokere 1977
In his first match for Southland, against North Otago, the then 18-year-old second five scored a try and kicked two drop goals in a 53-9 victory in Oamaru. The touring British and Irish Lions would be his next engagement and he was voted local supporters club man of the match as the hosts went down bravely 12-20. Waka Nathan was so enchanted with the display of Pokere he later selected him for the Māori All Blacks, but he sat on the reserves bench for two games.
Pokere had another crack at the Lions with the New Zealand Juniors where he scored a try in a 9-19 defeat, and it was noted of his display.
“Pokere eased over the ground with remarkable surety, tackled, covered, fulfilled pre-game stipulations to the letter.”
He played 13 games for Southland just three years after quitting soccer. From 1982 until late 1985 he was the regular All Black centre appearing in 18 Tests for 15 wins.
John Timu - 1988
John Timu was a sensation at Lindisfarne College in Hastings scoring 92 tries in 55 games for the First XV. Between 1984 and 1987 he represented the Hawke’s Bay and North Island Under 16 teams as well as the New Zealand Under 17’s and Secondary Schools outfits that were unbeaten.
In 1988 he relocated to Dunedin and scored 16 tries in 15 games for Otago, breaking All Black Bill Meates’ single season try scoring record from 40 years earlier.
Timu kicked on to score 108 tries in 182 first class matches. He played 26 Tests for the All Blacks from 1989 to 1994 before switching to rugby league where he was a Kiwis international and won an NRL Premiership with the Canterbury Bulldogs in 1995.
Va'aiga Tuigamala - 1989
Vai'aiga Tuigamala represented New Zealand in rugby union, winning 19 caps, and later Samoa in both rugby league (two caps) and rugby union (23 caps), playing in three World Cups, one in league and two in Union.
A product of Kelston Boys’ High School, he debuted for Auckland in 1988, aged 19, and played three games.
The next season the smiling beast of a winger exploded by scoring 22 tries in all first class rugby, including 10 in six games for NPC winning Auckland.
His hat-trick in the All Black Trial in Hamilton for the Possibles against the Probables saw him selected for the All Blacks tour of the UK and Canada where they won all 14 games. Tuigamala scored tries in wins against British Columbia (48-3), Pontypool (47-6), Connacht (40-6) and Ulster (21-3)
Fijian Test winger Paula Bale was the leading try scorer in the 1989 first class season with 25. Enormously popular, he scored 93 tries in 102 games for Canterbury.
Jonah Lomu - 1994
Jonah Lomu already had a formidable reputation by the time he entered first class rugby in 1994. At Wesley College he helped the First XV win two National Top Four titles as well as the Condor Sevens - the final of that event televised nationally with Lomu scoring four tries.
Lomu made his representative debut on May 4 for Counties Manukau against Horowhenua in a 108-12 win in Levin. He’s finished the Steelers season with eight tries in nine games.
At the age of 19 years and 45 days he became the youngest ever Test All Black when he was selected against France in Christchurch. He was retained a week later in Auckland but unfortunately the All Blacks lost both fixtures.
The feats of Lomu at the 1995 World Cup and thereafter became the stuff of legend.
Richie McCaw - 2001
Canterbury won the NPC in 2001 and finished the season with a 14-1 record. On September 15, 2001, in Dunedin they beat Otago 62-19 and young openside Richie McCaw scored three tries in the first half, a performance that wrote headlines.
McCaw later became the only All Black captain to win the World Cup twice.
At Otago Boys’ High School, he was an exceptional First XV player, scoring a try in the drawn National Final against Rotorua Boys’ High School at Lancaster Park, Christchurch. Craig Newby (future All Black) scored Rotorua’s try.
Strangely McCaw was overlooked for national schools’ selection but quickly made up for lost time. The 2002 Rugby Almanack anointed McCaw one of their five Players of Year for the 2001 season:
“Rarely can a forward have exploded onto the international scene as dramatically as did Richie McCaw.
Until the New Zealand Colts’ success at the international tournament in Australia in July, McCaw’s first class career had been confined to “bit” parts. In the 2000 season he played in just the first game of the international under 21 tournament; 18 minutes as a substitute in one NPC game for Canterbury. Super 12 was to bring him a five minute and a three minute appearance.
After Canterbury’s NPC win, McCaw debuted for the All Blacks in a 40-29 win against Ireland in Dublin. He was named Man of the Match and the rest was history.
Asafo Aumua 2017
It was well known by 2017 that explosive Wellington hooker Asafo Aumua was a serious prospect. In his NPC debut for Wellington a year earlier against Northland he scored three tries in a 29-21 win.
The following year he was ‘Lomu-Like” at the World Under 20 Rugby Championships in Georgia, scoring three tries in a 64-17 crushing of England in the final.
The Wellington Lions started the 2017 NPC season in the inferior championship but on September 17 beat eventual Premiership winners Canterbury by a record 60-14 with Aumua scoring a 60-metre solo try where he outpaced All Black wing George Bridge.
Aumua was equally devastating in scoring two long-range tries in a 42-26 win against Taranaki.
Wellington won 11 out of 12 games and scored 515 points in 2017 as they won promotion back to the topflight.
The damaging Aumua was an All Black at 21, coming off the bench in wins against the UK Barbarians (31-22) and the French XV (28-23) on his first Northern Hemisphere tour.