Wairarapa-Bush’s Epeli Rayaqayaqa stopped in his tracks by West Coast players in Saturday’s Heartland Championship match. PHOTO/JADE CVETKOV

GARY CAFFELL

Joe Harwood is a realist.

In his debut season as Wairarapa-Bush head coach he readily accepts a good portion of any blame for them winning just one of their one games in the 2017 Heartland Championship and finishing 11th in the 12-team competition has to fall on his shoulders.

It’s the old story of the buck having to stop somewhere and Harwood isn’t about to shirk that┬áresponsibility.

“As coaches you get judged on how your team performs, and we certainly didn’t do as well as we would have liked.

“The results were disappointing and there’s no point in trying to hide from that.”

Harwood does agree however that his life, and that of assistant coach James Bruce, could have been made easier but for a series of injury woes which saw Wairarapa-Bush use 34 players during their Heartland programme.

“We always knew that depth could be a problem but we never thought it would be tested quite like it was.”

In line with their union’s stated policy of aiming to have their Heartland side free of “imports” by 2019 Harwood and Bruce relied heavily on local talent in this year’s squad and while Harwood is fulsome in his praise of their commitment he says some players did struggle to bridge the gap between club and representative rugby, particularly in terms of conditioning.

“The pace of the game at Heartland level is so much quicker and fitness was certainly an issue for us, and that is something we simply have to address, both through the clubs and the players themselves.

“A lot of work needs to be done in that area.”

Harwood noted too that many of the other Heartland sides these days relied heavily on high quality “imports” to boost their playing resources and they were invariably game breakers capable of having a big influence on an end result.

Without players of that ilk Wairarapa-Bush were always likely to struggle and so the onus was on the union and clubs to do all they could to attract talent of that type to play their club rugby here.

“That’s never as easy as it sounds but if we want to be competitive in Heartland games we have to do a lot of work in the player recruitment area as well.”

On the question of skills Harwood believes the biggest lesson taught Wairarapa-Bush in 2017 was the importance of retaining possession for long periods.

He said that whereas the top Heartland sides did that consistently Wairarapa-Bush had all too often turned over possession after they had worked the ball through only two or three phases, and many of those turnovers had resulted in tries being scored against them.

“You get to this level and teams feed off your mistakes.

“When we did manage to string a number of phases together we actually created some good scoring opportunities but we didn’t do it enough.”

Frustrated at he was at the Heartland results, Harwood says he “thoroughly enjoyed” his first season in the coaching role and he is looking forward to taking up the challenge again next year.

“It’s been a big learning curve for me as much as anybody else and hopefully we can show the benefits of it next time round.”