When the New Zealand secondary schools side beat their Australian counterparts 34-11 in 2017, five players in the NZ backline cracked over 100 running metres. Not one of those five players were awarded the prestigious Jerry Collins Memorial Bronze Boot, however. Instead, it was talented loose forward Devan Flanders who was deemed the player of the series.

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That’s no mean feat, given the quality of players that were sprinkled amongst that team. That 2017 side has already produced 9 Super Rugby players, including Naitoa Ah Kuoi, Cullen Grace, Tupou Vaa’i, Leicester Fainga’anuku, Etene Nanai-Seturo, Kini Naholo, Danny Toala and Quinn Tupaea – as well as Flanders himself.

Flanders, who was a member of the famous Hasting Boys’ High School first XV that made two consecutive national finals, is in his first full-time season with the Hurricanes this year. Last Sunday, the dynamic number 8 started just his second match of Super Rugby and dotted down for his first try.

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We spoke to the young Blue flanker after his impressive start to Super Rugby Aotearoa about what’s motivating his consistently outstanding performances.

By his own admission, he’s still very much finding his feet at this level of the game, having played two seasons of Mitre 10 Cup for Hawke’s Bay.

“We had a few injuries at the start of the season, which allowed me to get a few minutes,” Flanders told RugbyPass. “I’m pretty happy with the minutes that I’ve had at the moment but not as happy with the way I’ve been playing.

“I think it’ll take a bit of time. I suppose it’s just adapting to the new style, playing with different players and just trying to be more confident in myself to play, really.”

Flanders, himself, is his biggest critic. While there are always tales of young players bursting onto the scene and immediately shining at Super Rugby level, even the greats of the game tend to take a while to warm up before they’re ready for the big leagues.

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Of course, Super Rugby Aotearoa is an even tougher competition than what most young men are faced with in their first few seasons of representing their local franchise. Every match is a must-win game and there are no real opportunities for rest or rotation.

It can also be tough to really find your feet when you’re regularly coming off the bench and facing up against other players who have already figured out the pace of the match.

“The game against the Chiefs, just before the COVID situation, that my first start,” said Flanders.

“For me, I find starting just a bit easier than coming off the bench because you’re beginning fresh with everyone. When you’re coming on later in the match, you’re a bit cold while everyone’s been playing for a while and have gotten used to the game.”

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The problem, of course, is that the Hurricanes are fairly well stocked in the loose forwards. Even though Ardie Savea was absent from the team prior to Super Rugby Aotearoa’s kick-off, the Hurricanes were still able to call on the likes of Vaea Fifita, Gareth Evans, Reed Prinsep and Du’Plessis Kirifi.

While that’s prevented Flanders from being thrust straight into the spotlight, it’s also provided the 20-year-old with plenty of role-models to learn from – especially Magpies teammate Evans and New Zealand’s best player at last year’s World Cup, Savea.

“[Evans] is another loose forward that I can learn a lot off, especially coming from Hawke’s Bay,” Flanders said. “I know him quite well now, so I can pretty much ask him anything. He helps me out with on-field and off-field stuff, so he’s a bit of a mentor for me.

“Ardie’s world-class. He was in my team at training [when the Super Rugby squads first came back together following the COVID-enforced break] and I just tried to learn as much off him as I could.

“He’s got a lot of good off-field stuff going on and he’s always trying to help out wherever he can. He does some early morning swims or has a coffee before training with whoever wants to go. He’s just a good guy, all-around.”

While Flanders trained with the Hurricanes in the lead-up to the 2018 and 2019 seasons, this is the first year where he’s really had the opportunity to regularly interact with the side’s All Blacks – who are normally absent for a large part of the pre-season.

“This is the first year that I’ve got to train properly and see what it’s like instead of just doing pre-season the whole time,” said Flanders. “I feel like I’m more part of the team now than I used to be – it’s a much better feeling knowing that training you’re doing with everyone is directly contributing to the season ahead.

“When you see the All Blacks for the first time, it’s awesome. You see them on TV and now you’re training with them, it’s pretty cool but it took me quite a while to get used to it. Even just getting a follow on Instagram – us new guys are all showing each other who follows who and all that kind of stuff.”

Flanders elects his flatmate and Hawke’s Bay teammate Danny Toala as the man who was quickest out of the blocks to snare the All Blacks and Hurricanes followers: “I think he got most of them straight away.”

While the Bronze Boot award was indicative of Flanders’ prowess, even at a high school level, it’s not the only sport that he excelled in during his formative years.

“Me and my brothers all played canoe polo too – I’m not sure if many people know what that is. It’s basically water polo but in a boat.

“I think it was about year six when we first started playing it, and then played it through intermediate and high school, then started playing for Hawke’s Bay and those sort of teams. My older brother played in the top team and he won nationals two years in a row and then I made the top team and we won again, so we go the three-peat, which was pretty good. We got sports team of the year at school too.”

While there are few similarities between canoe polo and Flanders’ current sport, you can imagine that the strength acquired from being involved in a pastime where navigation is almost entirely dependant on the arms and shoulder might come in useful for a budding rugby player.

“There are a few chicken legs but it was good for the upper body, of course, and fitness and strength,” Flanders said.

“In my early years, I trained quite hard for it. I was going to give it up in year 12 but I twisted my leg so I came back for year 13. I’ve got too heavy for a boat now; I can’t really fit in them.”

The focus is purely on rugby now – and Flanders is aiming to get as many matches under his belt as possible in the new competition. The regularity of play will allow the up-and-coming loose forward to build his confidence and show New Zealand what he’s capable of on a wider scale.

Still, Flanders acknowledges that the biggest improvement he can make right now is to just own his game and own his abilities – and he knows he’s more than capable of taking his game to the next level.

“Probably at the moment, I just need to focus on being more confident and more physical – just getting into the game more instead of trying to save myself.

“I felt like I was waiting for the game to come to me instead of going out there and getting it myself so, at the moment, I need to put my foot forward and take charge.

“I probably can’t wait until game time because that would be too late. At training, I need to do the little things right so that I’m feared and confident enough when it comes to the game time. When I first came in, I was just the quiet little boy. Now, I’m just trying to work on my game, be more confident and do what I want to do instead of just standing back.”

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