Martinborough captain Jono Hartnell and Tipene Haira show off the Tui Cup. PHOTOS/JADE CVETKOV
Club talent stocks stretched thin
The best championship for a long time, with some reservations and disappointments – that’s how I view the club season which ended with Martinborough beating Gladstone 36-32 in the Tui Cup final on Saturday.
Clearly, the emergence of Martinborough as a champion side coached by a champion bloke stood out.
James Bruce had the makings of a very good team in 2017 and they duly made the Tui Cup final only to be outdone by his old mentor Steve Thompson who had coached Bruce in his playing days at Gladstone.
Again in 2018, Stevie T [Bruce’s nickname for Thompson] got the better of ‘Brucie’ in the semifinals.
But in 2019, Bruce had the team humming and they were a well-oiled machine by the time of the finals.
His increased maturity and relaxed attitude as a coach cannot be underestimated. How much of that did he learn from his old mate Stevie T?
Of course, it wasn’t just Bruce.
There were “old” heads such as Tim Priest and Tipene Haira to guide the backline, excitement machines Alex Priest and Nathan Hunt out wide, and a hardworking no-name forward pack who were rarely bettered.
Gladstone were again to the forefront but despite all the experience, age appeared to be catching up with some of their stalwarts. This season may have been 12-months too far for the likes of Andrew McLean, Richard Puddy, Andrew McKay, and Arron Cook who have served the club so well for so long.
But with young guns such as speedy winger Logan Prendeville-Heberton and fullback Harry Eschenbach, and Thompson’s ability for shrewd recruitment, Gladstone should continue to be one of Bush’s leading clubs.
Greytown were undone in the semifinals for the third consecutive season.
Always competitive and very difficult to beat, they may not have had the depth of some of the other squads. That was evident on at least one occasion – in particular the away game to Eketahuna – where they had to have uncontested scrums due to a shortage of frontrowers.
The forward pack made up for their lack of size with plenty of heart and were superbly led by the Isaac brothers Tavita and Tana.
The backs – wingers MooMoo Falaniko and Taylor Fenwick, utility back Teihana Brown and promising first-five Raniera Peterson — had their moments of brilliance.
Eketahuna’s lack of depth was exposed with the absence of captain Robbie Anderson because of a broken thumb, and dynamic flanker Johan van Vliet, away overseas for three games.
That and other frustrating injuries, like that of Samoan speedster Faicagaloa Mamoe, led to the team losing three straight games and any momentum gained from winning the Moose Kapene Cup for the first-round championship.
Carterton won the Hodder-Steffert Cup, effectively coming fifth in the competition, although that will be no consolation for last year’s Tui Cup finalists.
The maroons never really recovered from a sluggish first round in which they won just two games.
Experienced lock Lachie McFadzean, halfback Daryl Pickering, and Brock Price, in the unaccustomed position of second-five, were some of the few players to shine.
There are plenty of young players such as No 8 Jack Loader, and talented backs Oakland Dean-Pene and Joseph Gordon to build a team for the future.
East Coast only had two wins, both over Marist.
The Coasties often threatened but could not deliver the final punch in many of their games.
Evergreen loose forward Joe Feast, exciting halfback Bryan Arnold, and young fullback Jack Wakeling were the best of a team of battlers.
The less said about Marist the better.
They were a huge disappointment for a team who clearly possess more ability than they displayed on the field at times.
They seemed to lose interest once their chances of making the semifinals dissipated and fell apart in their last three games.
Only their mercurial captain and loose forward-lock James Goodger, lock Kieran O’Brien, and halfback-first-five Paddy Gluck shone in a disjointed outfit.
The withdrawal of Masterton Red Star after eight weeks sent the championship into turmoil with all points relating to their games scrapped.
The reality was they were clearly not good enough to be there from the start and those pundits who told me the team wouldn’t see out the season were proved correct.
There’s a long road ahead for the club to regain their premier status.
It will take a long hard look at everything relating to the club starting at the top to get back their mojo.
The standard of play was generally better than in previous seasons.
Good forward play, some enterprising backlines, and the unpredictability from week to week made for an enthralling championship.
Hopefully, this translates to a promising Heartland Championship run.
There’s talk that Pioneer want to pick up the void from Masterton Red Star’s demise.
If accepted, that would leave an eight-team competition.
I find it hard to go past the fact that some of the teams lacked real depth and that the talent in the region is too thinly spread.
Is it time to seriously consider six teams?
Is it time for the Council of Clubs’ representatives to take off their eye patches and make a decision that is good for rugby and not just for their respective clubs?