They are nearly 100 young men. Some will become well-known, even legendary. Even All Blacks.

They are the boys-becoming-men who play rugby at Taranaki’s two premiere oval ball high schools, New Plymouth Boys and Francis Douglas Memorial College – our rugby nurseries.

There will be no better opportunity this year to see how they’re shaping than on May 6 when they play curtain-raiser to the Chiefs versus Reds Super rugby match at Yarrow Stadium in New Plymouth.

Who will win is unclear. Boys High (BHS) won on the last two occasions of this now traditional annual clash, but Francis Douglas (FDC) took three out of four of the matches before that.

Time was, such uncertainty would have been unthinkable. There was only one top rugby school in the province until towards the end of last century, and that was Boys High.

In past eras – like the early 1960s under coach John Stewart (later coach to the All Blacks) when they went five years unbeaten and included “boys” old enough to go to the pub – BHS rarely played FD because they were in different leagues.

That’s changed since the sport went professional in 1995. Now, rugby offers the possibility of a lifetime calling, a career, and FDC long ago emerged as a staging point as well respected as BHS. To discover how that happened is also to learn what’s going on in rugby’s breeding grounds.

That something fundamental was changing rugby and other sport in New Zealand probably didn’t occur to most people until the 1980s.

Gigantic Pacific Island kids were causing a revolution. BeeGee Williams’ massive thighs were no longer an aberration on the footy fields.

If you were a puny white male teenager and you fancied keeping your looks and your brain intact, you may have turned to soccer, hockey or any number of individual pursuits that didn’t seem to be around so much a generation or two before.

But it turned out there was a way to counter the drift away, as Francis Douglas Memorial College deputy principal and former first 15 coach Tim Stuck explains.

“What we had to do was make sure that if we weren’t big we would be quick and we would be fit and we’d be tough.

“We were never going to be huge at Francis Douglas. We just knew we couldn’t bulk them up like those other teams. We didn’t have the significant Samoan or the Tongan influence that other schools may have. We had a few Māori boys here and there, but we were traditionally white boys, so we had to play to our strengths.

“Sure, we wanted them to do a bit of gym work, that’s vital, that’s important, without causing them injuries or anything like that. But we were really looking at how are we going to play our game. Our boys had heaps of ticker, heaps of heart, and they were aerobically a lot better off than many of the other teams. They could run. They just didn’t give up, and that’s the attitude that we bred.”

He came from a physical education background at Otago University, where he did a degree in exercise science.

“We used the latest trends, but some old traditional methods, too. Steve Simpson (his co-coach, who coached there for a decade) was into getting them on the 400-metre track and beasting them until they died, whereas I was more into how could we incorporate the exercise with skill sets that were game-specific…and still make them die. It was great – we still had old school stuff with new thinking, which is perfect.”

And it worked. Big time. From 2009 to 2014, he and Simpson co-coached the FDC first 15 to unprecedented success, including three wins against BHS. Most of those games were close, although in 2013 FDC won 24-10.

Oddly, as Stuck points out, none of the FDC wins were on home ground. His teams tended to win at the BHS home field, the Gully Ground.

That’s where the biggest-ever victory was achieved, and a motivating factor might have been a BHS decision to bar FDC supporters, claiming the occasion was getting too crowded.

Those weren’t the first FDC wins over BHS, incidentally. The earliest came in 1999 (15-3), with a second in 2003 (17-15). That first win was notable for more than one reason – FDC had Conrad Smith, who went on to become one of the greatest All Black centres of all time.

Thereby lies a measure of FDC’s recent prominence – the success of its old boys. “Obviously, Conrad was a major influence. It showed our boys they could make it on the international scene, that from a little school you can go and do great things.”

Late last year, FDC old boys Beauden, Scott and Jordie Barrett and Liam Coltman were in the All Black team to tour the northern hemisphere. Beauden won international rugby player of the year.

“There’s not many schools that would produce that. It’s brilliant for us, and certainly puts our name out there. Suddenly, selectors, coaches and other people are interested in playing Francis Douglas. It’s like – where do these kids come from? Francis Douglas – where’s that? All of a sudden, you get noticed, and so there was a pathway for other boys.”

And there have been plenty of others. “After Conrad, along comes Deacon Manu, who played for the Chiefs and NZ Māori, and then he goes on to represent Fiji. Then you’ve got the likes of Shane Cleaver and Scott Ireland.

“Leon Power is a good example of someone who broke into the scene and has played some Super rugby as well as playing in France. Logan Crowley and Ricky Riccitelli have recently signed with Taranaki. Ricky is currently in the Hurricanes. Chris Gawler has been contracted in the Canterbury NPC team and made his debut for the Crusaders 10 team in Brisbane recently.

“There’s Du’Plessis Kirifi, who’s up in the Chiefs under-20s. He’s going into the NZ under-20 camp. We’ve got some in Otago Highlanders– Liam Coltman, Josh and Teihorangi Walden.” Teihorangi has also represented NZ at the U20 level.

Across town at the Gully Ground, the opposition secondary school rugby forces are hardly taking such developments lying down. After all, they’ve won the last two annual matches, and in 19 years since 1998, they took 13 games, FDC five and there was one draw.

While the production of BHS All Blacks has slowed in recent years, the school has produced 31 (including seven captains) since it was founded in 1882, and ranks among New Zealand’s top five as a source of national representatives.

All of which was no doubt in the back of Sam Moore’s mind when he accepted the role of first fifteen coach 18 months ago. He has come from Feilding High School, itself no slug in recent national representative stakes, with alumni like Sam, George and Luke Whitelock, Aaron Smith and Codie Taylor.

Moore is big, affable, and quietly professional. When we attend one of his early season training sessions, it begins with some serious instruction for the 40-or-so boys gathered in the Gully Grounds’ flash Fookes Pavilion.

There’s a whiteboard setting out the afternoon’s approach, followed by a power-point show on lineout strategies as complicated to the uninitiated as cellphone instructions to a baby boomer.

The boys pay attention, not through feigned politeness but because they’re interested in what he has to say.

“Will they get all that?” “Yep,” he says. “They’ve got a good understanding already. By the time we’ve gone through it a few times in training they’ll be fine. It’s not as complicated as it looks.”

I thank him for letting us listen in, and mention we’re doing the same at Francis Douglas in a day or so. “Tell them we’re not training yet,” he laughs. The squad has already had a session that morning, so this is called “double day”.

While co-coach Johnny Weston takes the backs, Moore gets the forwards into basic skills exercises, like running and dodging, and securing the ball on the ground with something called “dirty knuckles”. Then it’s lineout drills, with hookers throwing in, lifters hauling tall skinny boys high.

Moore demands concentration, but not through shouting. Too much more chat and they’ll be staying past the 50 minutes he’s set for the session. You get the feeling none would mind. Moore says 95 percent want to get into Super Rugby. Although only one percent is likely to make it, professional sport these days offers many career opportunities, he says.

This is his first year as the first fifteen coach and he’s come back to a squad of 40 to 50 that’s lost 17 who left school at the end of 2016. It’s a young and less experienced group, but he’s confident he’s got some stars in the making.

So is his boss, relatively new headmaster Paul Veric, a man with a teaching and commercial background and an eye for the importance of his school’s rugby profile. “Our aims for our rugby players are simple but two-fold,” he says in response to my questions about aims and aspirations.

“We want them to reach their potential, whether that’s the best social player they can be or an All Black legend. We also want them to be great men. We want them to be good brothers, sons, employees and husbands/partners. We put a lot of emphasis on helping them to get their behaviour and values right.

“Our top rugby players cannot play for the school if they are not attending or engaged in class, or meeting our accepted and very high behaviour standards. If players do get it wrong, there are consequences. These are expected and accepted by the students.”

He says the school’s rugby plan revolves around developing the fundamental skills of year 9 (third form) boys and building on that each year.

“We have a rugby development officer who is responsible for supporting the coaches and players and a tremendous network of experienced volunteer coaches at all levels who are passionate about improving our players.”

Like Tim Stuck, he’s proud of how well the school’s players and old boys have been performing. “Currently, we have six past first fifteen players in the Super Rugby competition, with many others entering Mitre 10 Cup squads and provincial academies.”

Recent highlights include getting second in the 2015 Super 8 secondary schools competition the school contests (including teams from Napier, Tauranga, Hamilton and Gisborne), having ten boys trial for the Chiefs under-18 team (with nine making the team and wider group), players Zane Firth (2015) and Blair Murray (2016) winning player-of-the-tournament at National Condors under-15 tournaments, Liam Blyde making the New Zealand secondary schools sevens team, Kaylum Boshier and Tom Florence gaining selection in the 2016 New Zealand Barbarians secondary school team, and Tom Florence (2015) and Bradley Slater (2016) being selected for New Zealand secondary schools sides.

Training boys to be fitter, faster and tougher wasn’t the only reason Francis Douglas played a significant early part in the accomplishments of its old boy stars. Tim Stuck says other factors include developing boys into “good college men”, travelling and competing in a far bigger geographic arena than before, getting noticed, and the fact that success breeds more of the same.

“My key philosophy was about developing the person first. I really emphasised that we were trying first to develop them as people, make them into good people. You can improve skills, patterns and so forth, but often if you’ve got the right person it makes it a helluva lot easier.

“We had no right to win some of those games, but because we had fine young men playing for us, playing for each other and playing for the school, that’s what made a difference. We won competitions, and we got far in knockouts because of that.

“We became a lot more professional in our approach. One of the big things for us was we had a captive audience and we could be semi-professional for when we trained, how often we trained.”

Getting out into the wider world has been beneficial, he says. “We’ve essentially developed our programme so we’re actually playing quality competition. That’s why these boys are suddenly being seen. FDC has been put on the map through playing in good comps and getting boys noticed.

“When I was here playing for the first fifteen you’d travel two games in the whole season. Now sometimes we can be doing up to ten games away.

“Steve Simpson had the foresight to get the team into these comps, even though we got smashed a few times. Prior to him, Chris Moller, Martin Dravitski, Bryce Koch and Richard Doherty…there’s a whole lot of them who were prepared to play games in which potentially we could get a hiding. But we knew that if we wanted to get better we had to play them, not just one-offs when we thought we were good.”

Such improvements have a monetary cost. FDC keeps a tight rugby budget by using billeting on trips, and with big input from parents and help from sponsors Taranaki Steelformers and New Plymouth Physiotherapy (BHS sponsors are Clelands Construction and Coresteel).

Scholarships now play a major role in kick-starting young players’ careers, and when we say “young” we mean very young. Stuck heard of a couple of New Plymouth intermediate school 12-year-olds landing scholarships to Auckland high schools.

Having a staunch old boys network full of stars also helps FDC. “All those boys came back last year prior to Xmas for a fundraiser. We raised a significant amount of money from those guys.”

One of the biggest changes he’s seen comes from the impact of rugby going professional. “In the past, with students who had made representative teams and were really good players, I would have said go to university or go to your trade and really knuckle down, and rugby will take care of itself.

“But now I’d be telling a boy at the end of Year 13 who’s potentially made a Chiefs or Hurricanes or a secondary schools team, that you need to follow this. It’s a young man’s game now and this is your opportunity.”

Professionalism has brought many pressures for young players. Jack Ralston, in his revealing 2011 book about New Zealand sport, ‘The Sports Insider’, wrote of All Blacks who felt they needed to take steroids to bulk up. The prospect of life-changing concussion is another cause for parental concern.

Veric: “There are many challenges facing young men today, from social media to pressure to perform in the classroom and on the rugby field. What we do at BHS is try to educate them the best we can on the various challenges they face and help them navigate through those.

“We take concussion very seriously. The only advice we take around concussion is from qualified medical professionals. Parents, player or coach opinions don’t matter when it comes to concussion. Any boy we suspect of concussion or who we know has been concussed must get medical clearance before they can play again. The school has a close relationship with Dr Steve Smith, who is also the Taranaki Rugby Union doctor.”

Stuck and Moore have similar views. Stuck: “We don’t really talk about supplements (like Creatine). There’s boys that certainly do use them, but it’s not part of our programme. We deal with what we’ve got in front of us. We won’t be getting up in front of them and saying to bulk up you need to take this weight protein – it’s just not a discussion we have.

“It’s a bit like the concussion thing. We’re probably going to see down the track bigger boys, bigger collisions, more power.”

He agrees the risk of concussion is a reality when smaller players from the regions take on the bigger players of Auckland and Wellington schools.

“Yes, it is a reality. And the refs and officials have done a wonderful job of making sure players don’t go back on. The majority of the coaches buy into that.

“We try to make sure we are managing the players. We still talk about the fact that they’ve only got one brain, and they’re young. We work in with the parents if we need to say this kid’s not playing and if need be we’ll give him extra time.

He has seen the concern among parents. “Our football (soccer) community here is growing. Some parents don’t see rugby as a game they want their sons to be involved in.

“We’ve still got a significant number of (rugby) teams — 10 or 11 in total — but that’s probably dwindled over the last ten years, as we’ve lost probably two or three teams.”

Mike Collins at the Taranaki Rugby Union is all too aware of what Stuck is talking about. The organisation he heads has focused on turning around the decline, and he feels they’re making headway.

“We’ve invested a lot of money. We created a new position, and we had David Ormrod come in and manage the secondary school rugby space. He’s helped the schools with their administration, and he tried to make the competitions fairer, so there weren’t 100-point blowouts and kids not enjoying it. He tried to upskill coaches and players at the same time.

“So, it was a pretty big role, and our guys have done a really good job. We’re into the third year, and before it began we had a 13 percent decrease in player numbers. In his first year we had no change, and then we started to attract people back. Our secondary school playing numbers were up by two or three teams last year, and up four percent for playing numbers.”

Rugby has to change, to evolve, he says. “We can’t do what we did 20 years ago and put a blank piece of A-4 paper on the wall outside the dean’s office asking who wants to play rugby.

“We’ve really tried to evolve our offering. We have to make sure the tournaments are fun, that they suit the players. We’ve tried Wednesday night rugby, we’ve tried different first fifteen competitions, tens tournaments, sevens tournaments, Rippa rugby, non-contact stuff. We’ve developed under-13 teams at secondary schools because kids are going in a bit younger.

“We’ve got two rugby development officers, who work from primary schools up to intermediates, and then we’ve got two people who work from the pre-academy down to intermediates through secondary schools.”

First 15 rugby is evolving all the time, says Collins, and he takes his hat off to FDC and BHS. “They’re exposed to the very best players in the country, and the level of competition they’re playing in is really top rugby. It’s fast, it’s skilful, and those schools take it extremely seriously.

“You watch our teams – and I call them our teams – you watch them play against some of the big Auckland and Wellington schools, and we’re always under-sized.

“But the thing that fills my heart with joy is seeing the work ethic and the bravery of our boys. I think it’s something Taranaki people are renowned for, their work ethic and their dogged determination.

“No matter how big the opposition are, they’re going to fly into it and get stuck in and not take a backward step.

“They really punch above their weight for the resources that are invested in their programmes. A lot of the Auckland schools have bigger budgets than the Port Taranaki Bulls team. It’s a massive industry.”

He believes the strength of the Chiefs junior development programmes has been one of the key benefits from Taranaki switching Super franchises.

“There has been a really positive outcome on our community games. This is the important stuff. The average punter doesn’t see that.”

He says secondary school teams in the Chiefs region are eligible to play in the Chiefs Cup competition. “That’s a pre-season knockout type tournament. FDC play in that…BHS can’t because their schedule is too busy. They’ve got traditionals and other games already lined up.

“From there it goes into the Chiefs under-18 development programme – that’s a skills camp and a selection camp. There were about nine or ten from Taranaki last year, similar to the year before. The Chiefs have been particularly helpful in helping us recruit and retain that sort of talent.”

All levels are benefiting, he says. “There’s an under-13 week-long competition called the Roller Mills tournament which has been going for 60-plus years and all the northern provincial unions play in it. Taranaki was invited to play in it for the first time in 2015, so our players, parents, supporters all went up, and it’s just a magnificent competition.” Taranaki would host it this year.

There are the under-16s, as well, who now play in the Chiefs competition, and the under-19s, too. There’s also a northern region competition of nine rep games for development players in the team below the Port Taranaki Bulls.

“The games are a lot closer (in travel). We’re no longer doing six-hour bus trips to Hawkes Bay or five and a half down to Wellington.”

Looking ahead to May 6, he says the union ideally would have liked a New Zealand derby, but it’s happy getting the Queensland Reds. “The Reds have shown even only one game in that they’ve picked it up. They’ve got George Smith and Quade Cooper, a couple of genuine rock stars. And this year we have Argentina versus the All Blacks on September 9.

“We’re really happy that FDC and BHS will be playing the curtain-raiser. For us, it’s a good bit of community rugby, where community rugby meets Super Rugby.”