The opportunity to play against Manu Samoa at Eden Park will be a career highlight for Ralph Darling.
Darling is one of three North Otago players who will step on to the international stage next weekend, named in the New Zealand Heartland XV squad to play the opening game of the Pasifika Challenge II: The Road to Japan.
Coach Mark Rutene this week named North Otago players Meli Kolinisau, Josh Clarke and Darling in his 23-strong squad.
Darling said it was a “massive honour” to play against Manu Samoa, in his eighth year in the Heartland XV squad.
“I’ve always admired and supported [Samoa] so for me this one is pretty special,” he said.
But he is not letting it distract him from North Otago’s first game of the Heartland Championship against South Canterbury this weekend.
“I like to focus on one job at a time and this week’s goal is South Canterbury,” he said.
Clarke returns to the Heartland XV after first making the team in 2014 and it is Kolinisau’s third year in the squad.
The core of the squad from the 2018 campaign returns, and Rutene said those existing connections would be key in next week’s build up.
“These players are coming off a diet of club rugby, they’ll have one Heartland match under their belt before facing international opposition, that’s a big step up, but one they are all looking forward to.”
The New Zealand Heartland XV plays Manu Samoa at 2pm on August 31 before Tonga plays Fiji at 4.30pm.
The event is being used as a final warm-up for Pacific sides before they compete at this year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan three weeks later.
NZ Heartland XV Squad
Forwards: Mark Atkins (Poverty Bay), Scott Cameron (Horowhenua Kapiti), Carl Carmichael (King Country), Josh Clarke (North Otago), Ralph Darling (North Otago) James Goodger (Wairarapa Bush), Campbell Hart (Whanganui), Meli Kolinisau (North Otago), Seta Koroitamana (Mid Canterbury), Glen McIntyre (Thames Valley), Brett Ranga (Thames Valley), Troy Tauwhare (West Coast), Adrian Wyrill (Poverty Bay).
Backs: Craig Clare (Whanganui), Sione Holani (West Coast), Lindsay Horrocks (Whanganui), Harry Lafiuanei (Thames Valley), James Lash (Buller), Kalavini Leatigaga (South Canterbury), Peni Nabainivalu (Whanganui), Willie Paiaua (Horowhenua Kapiti), Timoci Serawalu (Horowhenua Kapiti), William Wright (South Canterbury). Matt Fetu (South Canterbury) is on standby.