Soli Malatai … star winger has moved to play in Wellington. PHOTOS/FILE

RUGBY

ELI HILL
eli.hill@age.co.nz

Coach Joe Harwood believes a tough draw for the upcoming Heartland Championship will help Wairarapa-Bush take their game to the next level – but they will have to do it without last season’s ‘X-factor’ back, Soli Malatai and three other key players.

Harwood said on Thursday his side, who lost the Lochore Cup final 23-26 to Horowhenua-Kapiti last season, would look to improve on their sixth placing after the preliminary round.

“Based on last year’s results, we’re going to be facing three of the top teams early on — we’ve got Wanganui, King Country and Thames Valley — all top four last year.

“But actually, I’m looking forward to it.

“You can’t move to the next level unless you’re prepared to go up against these teams. If we want to get to the Meads Cup [playoffs], we’d be going up against these sides anyway.”

Wai-Bush will be missing last season’s fullback-winger Sean Law [four caps] and centre-winger Malatai who have moved to play out of the region.

Malatai, 21, made history last year when he became the first Wairarapa-Bush player to post five tries in a first-class match, against Buller, in September.

The 178cm-tall speedster played 17 times for Wai-Bush since his debut in August 2017, including 14 Heartland Championship matches and scored 10 tries over the two seasons.

Centre Cyrus Baker [11 caps] and flanker Marcus Ale [six caps] are both out because of long-term injury.

Baker was captaining the side in a pre-season match against the New Zealand Army last year when he suffered an Achilles injury in the first 10 minutes of the game.

Joe Harwood

“It’s a big loss to have Soli and Sean not coming back,” said Harwood, “But we just wish them all the best for their future playing careers, and speedy recoveries for Cyrus and Marcus.

“The loss of these players presents a challenge for us and we’ll be looking to attract new talent into the team,”

Wai-Bush selectors will be profiling players throughout the club season, and Harwood said their trials in March would be opened to anyone.

“We’ll have an open invite for both last year’s players and anyone who’s looking to be a part of the team. We want to see who has the focus and the drive to play at this level.”

Harwood said the team will be working to tidy up set pieces – an area of weakness Wairarapa-Bush had through 2018.

“For a lot of our guys in those front five positions, that was their first time playing at that level.

“We’re going to work at getting our body positions right, the position of our players right, and picking up our performance in the set pieces.”

Matches that Wairarapa-Bush will be looking to bank points include a home game against Poverty Bay who finished 11th, and Buller, 10th, in 2018.

They beat Poverty Bay 27-22 and thrashed Buller 61-29 in the preliminary round last season.

Wairarapa-Bush will play eight consecutive Saturdays from August 24 to October 12.

After round-robin play, the top four sides will move into the Meads Cup, with the next four playing off for the Lochore Cup.

Harwood said the team, who came 11th out of 12 in 2017, then sixth in 2018, were hoping to improve once again.

“Tough draw aside, we’re just going to have to work hard, train hard and put in that bit extra.”