Skipper Leni Apisai is confident his Baby Blacks side have what it takes to clinch a second consecutive World Rugby Under-20 Championship.
Wellington and Hurricanes hooker Apisai was set to be part of the squad who left Italy last year with a first crown since 2011, but missed out through a head injury.
Having been so close, Apisai is now relishing every minute with New Zealand Under-20s and is convinced Scott Robertson’s side can go all the way in Manchester.
Apisai capitalised on World Cup winning club-mate Dane Cole’s injury absence to make his Hurricanes Super Rugby debut in February, but is now fully focussed on success in black.
And as Robertson’s squad were greeted by a traditional Maori performance at Broughton Park FC, Apisai expressed his pride and desire to succeed.
“It is a bit overwhelming, it was awesome to have a few Maori people here to welcome us on at Broughton Park,” the 20-year-old hooker said.
“It is a huge honour to be here, it made me a lot hungrier when I missed out last year, it is awesome to be here, I am very excited.
“We are confident we can do the job, we know it is going to be a huge challenge on us defending the title, but we are confident in our structures and the way we play.
“I think this team and last year’s are equal, we have got a young team this year, there are a lot of guys who can come back next year, but they are mature and they have got the skillsets to deliver the goods.”
Robertson’s men drew a two-test Oceania Championship series with Australia in May, winning the first test 30-10 before losing the second 25-24 thanks to a last-play Mack Mason penalty.
And Apisai thinks his battle-hardened men have recovered sufficiently for their tournament opener against newcomers Georgia Under-20s at Sale Sharks’ AJ Bell Stadium on Tuesday.
“Australia tipped us over when we played them in the Oceania Championship but we have just been taking it game by game, day by day, we are just looking forward to Georgia on Tuesday,” he explained.
“Georgia are going to be very excited to be in the tournament and they are big boys, we are expecting a big physical battle come Tuesday.
“It will be good to get a lot more footie under my belt at a higher level, we’re just trying to get the boys up to a level where we can excel.”
And with Under-20 Six Nations champions Wales lying in wait on June 11, as well as Ireland on June 15, Apisai remains sure his men can overcome a daunting group and go on to claim an unprecedented sixth crown at this level.
He said “Both Wales and Ireland did well in the 20s Six Nations, they have got the tools to harm us, but we back our preparation to do the job.”
See the Future Stars of Rugby at the World Rugby U20 Championship in Manchester this June. For more information, including how to buy tickets, visit http://www.englandrugby.com/u20championships/ #WorldRugbyU20s