Soli Malatai, potential match winner for Wairarapa-Bush. PHOTO/FILE
With the 2017 Heartland Championship entering only its second week on Saturday it is far too early to label any game as season-defining.
However, you do get the feeling that the result of the fixture between Wairarapa-Bush and East Coast at Memorial Park, Masterton will have a significant part to play in what transpires for them further down the track.
Both teams started their Heartland campaigns in disappointing fashion last weekend, Wairarapa-Bush taking a 79-7, 10-tries-to-one thumping from defending Meads Cup champions Wanganui and East Coast hammered 42-13 by Thames Valley.
Losses of that magnitude, no matter how formidable the opposition, must erode confidence to at least some degree so for Wairarapa-Bush and East Coast the primary objective this week will be to restore the sort of self-belief necessary for them to compete strongly in the more difficult assignments to come.
The expectation is that East Coast will play a similar type of rugby to Wanganui, only with not quite the same degree of skill.
They too like to use their big men as battering rams and if the Wairarapa-Bush defensive structure has as many deficiencies as it did last weekend the home team could again find themselves in dire straits.
With that in mind it is no surprise to learn that the tightening of the defence has been a major focus at Wairarapa-Bush training this week.
In close quarter situations, and particularly around the fringes of the rucks and mauls, first up tackles need to count.
Loose forwards Tavita Isaac, Brendan Campbell and Eddie Cranston will bear much of the responsibility there and how they cope is likely to have a huge say in the end result.
It will be vital to the Wairarapa-Bush cause too that they match fire with fire in the battle for possession up front.
Locks Andrew McLean and Lachie McFadzean need to impose themselves at lineout time and the front row of Nick Hohepa, James Pakoti and newcomer Jayden Mason need to anchor a solid scrum, the latter being an area where an East Coast squad who have former Marist and Wairarapa-Bush halfback Troy Para as joint coach is sure to fancy their chances of gaining a measure of ascendancy.
The Wairarapa-Bush rearguard had very few chances to demonstrate their attacking capabilities against Wanganui, a lack of possession meaning they spent a large proportion of the game deep in their own territory.
Hopefully this week will be a very different story and their pacy back three of wings Nikora Ewe and Soli Malatai and fullback Sam Monaghan will get ample opportunity to stretch their legs.
As potential match winners go Wairarapa-Bush have none better and the more they get into the game the better for their side.
Just who will be initially calling the shots for Wairarapa-Bush in the inside backs was not known at the time these notes were penned as while Piri Weepu has been cleared to play after undergoing tests for the breathing difficulties which caused him to leave the field early in the second half against Wanganui, there is no guarantee he will be part of the starting XV.
Weepu had apparently been struggling with a virus for a couple of weeks previous to the Wanganui match and the remnants of that could well have caused his shortness of breath.
To allow full recovery it would be no surprise if head coach Joe Harwood started him on the bench tomorrow which would mean starting with Inia Katia in the No 9 jersey and Tim Priest at first-five.
It would then be interesting which of those two positions Weepu would fill when he entered the fray, probably after halftime.
Whichever way you look at this game a close finish is on the cards although if you believe the TAB sports odds setters it will be one way traffic with Wairarapa-Bush paying out just $1.09 for a dollar spent and East Coast $6.
A Wairarapa-Bush win by 13 or more points would give you only $1.22 while an East Coast win by 12pts or under is paying $8.
The match, to be refereed by Teruhisha Kajiwara of Japan, will be preceded by three curtain-raiser games, Wairarapa-Bush Under-14s v Manawatu at 11am, Wairarapa-Bush Under-18s v Wanganui, also at 11am, and Wairarapa-Bush B’s v Wellington Maoris which will kick off at 12.30pm.