Sam Monaghan, left, will play at first-five for Eketahuna. PHOTOS/JADE CVETKOV

Anderson key for Eke hopes
The top four teams front up for the Tui Cup rugby semifinals tomorrow. Times-Age sportswriter Chris Cogdale previews the match between defending champions Gladstone and Moose Kapene Cup winners Eketahuna.

Gladstone v Eketahuna, Gladstone, 2.35pm. [Referee: Chris Jefferies]

Gladstone and Eketahuna come into Saturday’s Tui Cup semifinal at Gladstone with contrasting fortunes.

Since winning the Moose Kapene Cup for the first-round championship, Eke have slipped to fourth place and have won only two of their past six matches.

That included a 43-6 hiding from Gladstone three weeks ago.

Gladstone suffered only the one second-round defeat, a last minute 25-27 loss to Martinborough, which was also their first home defeat in more than three years.

Eketahuna did win the first-round fixture 13-0.

The home team will field pretty much the same side that started last Saturday’s 41-10 win over Marist.

One notable absentee is veteran lock Andrew Smith, who is away, and will also miss the final should the team succeed.

Coach Steve Thompson is calling on his “secret weapon” Sean Nixon, who works in Christchurch but has been a regular member of the team throughout the season, to fill Smith’s void.

First-five Jeremy Osborne [ankle], utility player Epeli Rayaqayaga [broken arm] and Josh Gatenby [ribs] are other players out with injury.

Where Gladstone’s talisman Inia Katia starts depends on the fitness of second-five Jock Cameron, who missed last weekend’s game with a sprained ankle.

If Cameron is unfit Katia will wear the No 12 jersey, otherwise he will slip into his more accustomed halfback role.

The tussle at the breakdown should be a beauty with both teams fronting with all representative loose forward trios.

No 8 Joe Tako, centre, has been in blockbusting for Gladstone.

Combative openside Ryan Knell, blindside Eddie Cranston, and the blockbusting Fijian No 8 Joe Tako will come up against an equally abrasive trio in Johan Van Vliet at openside, BJ Campbell and in-form No 8
Sam Shaw.

Add in veteran lock Andrew McLean approaching something like his best form and Thompson should be confident his side is on the right track to make a third consecutive final.

“We’re going to go good, we’re not counting our chickens, but it’s a semifinal and we’ll be pulling out all our stock of tricks.

“Making another final, it’ll be real good, but you never know, we just have to see if we’re good enough.”

Eketahuna coach Wayne Roach is confident inspirational captain Robbie Anderson will be back for the semifinal.

The experienced centre hasn’t played since breaking his thumb in the 16-17 loss to Martinborough on June 8 and was expected to be out for the remainder of the club season.

However, Roach said Anderson was to see a specialist yesterday to get a clearance to play.

“Robbie trained during the week, and his presence at training even made a difference, so we’re hopeful he’ll get the okay to play.”

Anderson’s likely availability and the return from injury of several other players who have been battling with niggling injuries will be good news for Roach.

Roach said since the loss to Martinborough they had struggled to fill the gaps.

That had forced him to play players out of position, most notably dynamic flanker van Vliet at second-five and veteran midfield back Simanu Simanu at prop.

However, Simanu is one of two players who won’t line up for Eketahuna on Saturday. He and giant lock Clinton Keil Skelton have returned to Samoa.

Roach will make one key positional change for the semifinal.

Former Wairarapa-Bush utility back Sam Monaghan will start at first-five, replacing regular first choice Josh Pepperell.

“Sam brings more experience and reads the game a bit better. Josh will play at fullback; he has done a great job for us and is a good goal kicker, so we need him on the field,” he said.

Roach felt if his team could play as well as they could, a win was on the cards.

“It’s semifinal stuff – we’ve just got to get our confidence back.”

Thompson is predicting that the surface at the ground named in his honour [Steve Thompson Domain] will be in good order for the semifinal.

“It’s OK, it was pretty firm on Monday night, and it should play well.”

Coggie’s prediction:

Robbie Anderson makes a hell of a difference to Eketahuna, but it’s hard to go past Gladstone’s home record and experience at the crunch time of the season. Gladstone in a tense battle.

Tomorrow: Coggie analyses Martinborough v Greytown semifinal.