News Rugby World Cup: Why All Blacks star Richie Mo'unga...

Rugby World Cup: Why All Blacks star Richie Mo'unga spurned rugby league offers

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Richie Mo'unga might have done great things in a rugby league kit.

There were certainly opportunities for him to have a dig at the 13-man code, with talent spotters of honey in him during his teenage years.

Older brother Tonga, who was good enough to play for a New Zealand rep rugby side when he attended Christchurch Boys' High School, had already blazed a trail for his sibling to follow by electing to represent the Canterbury Bulls league team.

Richie Mo'unga will start at first-five for the All Blacks in their World Cup opener against the Springboks.

HANNAH PETERS? GETTY IMAGES

Richie Mo'unga will start at first-five for the All Blacks in their World Cup opener against the Springboks.

So young Richie was no stranger to world or rugby league. It wasn't as if hey, like some other schoolboys, had been living solely in a rugby bubble.

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Then there were the league scouts. They could sense Mo'unga was special. He was blessed with the ability to see read the game in advance, and make decisions much faster than his peers.

And he possessed another valued trait: confidence.

Mo'unga, now 25, was on a trip with the St Andrews College 1st XV to Queensland when the scouts from the league clubs locked eyes on the young first five-eighth and ground to survey about his aspirations.

First XV coaches Joe Leota and Mike Johnston recall the impact Mo'unga made during those trips, and the calls that followed.

"He certainly generated a lot of interest," Johnston said. "Not just in rugby. We got used to the Gold Coast a couple of times and the league scouts were very, very interested in him.

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"He had the offers. They could see what he could do as a stand-off or half in rugby league."

Mo'unga was not interested. Three years ago he laughed when he told Stuff that even if he wanted to play league Tonga wouldn't have allowed him to, saying he wasn't tough enough.

Richie Mo'unga and the All Blacks will look at the grass of the Springboks in their pool oopener.

GETTY IMAGES

Richie Mo'unga and the All Blacks will look at the grass of the Springboks in their pool oopener.

Tonga was probably underestimating his brother on that score; because there are already several instances of Mo'unga playing with broken bones in his hand, including in his All Black's debut as a replacement against a French XV in Lyon in late 2017.

In any case, it wasn't like the Canterbury Rugby Football Union was going to allow a league club to poach him.

The CRFU also had Mo'unga's leg tracking, maintaining contact with Leota and Johnston during his three years in St Andrew's 1st XV.

All parties made sure Mo'unga was carefully managed.

"We also didn't want Richie to get over-exposed," Johnston said. "So there was a really good communication line between us.

"We were talking about the amount of training that he was going to, making sure that he was getting a balanced training program. It was a very positive conversation."

Mo'unga was going places, at a young age.

He enrolled at the private school, having been offered a sports scholarship, aged 14. He left his mates at Riccarton High School after Leota had him play for a Canterbury age group team.

Not that Mo'unga immediately enjoyed the switch.

Richie Mo'unga captained the St Andrew's College 1st XV in his final season in 2012.

STACY SQUIRES / STUFF

Richie Mo'unga captained the St Andrew's College 1st XV in his final season in 2012.

For starters he had to keep the tattoo on his calf muscle – he took the opportunity to decorate his lower leg when his mum and dad were on holiday ("Let's just say I wasn't the favorite child when I came back") – covered by pulling his socks up to his knees.

He had to wear a blazer and tie. He didn't like it, either: "The transition was pretty tough, and I remember after the first day my mother picking me up and I was crying."

Richie Mo'unga played for the St Andrew's 1st XV for three years.

THE PRESS

Richie Mo'unga played for the St Andrew's 1st XV for three years.

Johnston recalled Mo'unga's initial discomfort: "He was just about ready to walk out after the first couple of months because things were a bit tough, but things just easier as they developed."

The teenager adapted, and flourished, especially in the sports field.

He was a member of the first XV between 2010 and 2012, captained the side in his final season and was named the team's best player for each season.

Leota, a former Canterbury wing, sensed the danger in stifling Mo'unga's talents and granted him permission to make his own decisions during games.

"We virtually gave him a license to play what he saw," Leota said. "We didn't worry too much about structure and he could see things happen before they happened.

"He was just one of those kids who read the game so well."

There were some interesting duels during the inter-school games in the city. Injured All Black Damian McKenzie was the No 10 for Christ's College, and Hurricanes and Waikato playmaker Fletcher Smith was in the Christchurch Boys team alongside the future All Black Anton Lienert-Brown.

Richie Mo'unga drinks from the Bledisloe Cup following the 36-0 win over the Wallabies in Auckland last month.

PHOTOSPORT

Richie Mo'unga drinks from the Bledisloe Cup following the 36-0 win over the Wallabies in Auckland last month.

Mo'unga was always relaxed before and during games with the 1st XV, and little appears to have changed since his progression through the ranks with Canterbury, the Crusaders and the All Blacks.

All Blacks captain Kieran Read has been well placed to observe Mo'unga's rise to the highest level, having played alongside him at the Crusaders and in tests.

"His game has evolved immensely," Read said ahead of the first World Cup pool match against the Springboks in Yokohama on Saturday night. "Right now he's a person who's leading our team as a first-five. So we need him to be a leader in our side and that's what he's grown to.

"I can't wait to see him on the field on Saturday."

Not being selected for the NZ secondary school team in his final year was a major setback, and Leota thought Mo'unga would have been better served playing in the grade grade when he joined the Linwood club in the Christchurch metro competition after his departure from St Andrew's.

Leota was happy to be proven wrong; Mo'unga flourished, made his first-class debut for Canterbury and was blooded by the Crusaders in 2016 following the post-World Cup exits of Dan Carter, Colin Slade and Tom Taylor.

The arrival of former Irish test No. 10 Ronan O'Gara at the Super Rugby club in 2018 led to the duo forming a close working relationship, and as Mo'unga's skill set improved so did the chances of him replacing Beauden Barrett at first-five for the All Blacks.

Leota isn't surprised Mo'unga has pushed the celebrated Barrett to the fullback role, having noted how his game had progressed.

"To me, he didn't run (the ball) until recently," Leota said. "It was more about getting field position, organizing the people around me. It was more about management stuff.

"So there's some real development around that level."

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