By Gary Caffell
Wairarapa-Bush have already secured as many wins in this year’s Heartland rugby championship as they did for the whole of the qualifying rounds last season but a second successive Meads Cup semifinal appearance is anything but certain.
Right now Wairarapa-Bush’s 19 points from four wins and a narrow loss has them lying fourth on the points table behind Wanganui (24), South Canterbury (22) and Buller (21) but three other teams, Mid-Canterbury (17), King Country (16) and North Otago (15), are still very much in contention as well.
If past history shows anything it is that results in this competition can change quite dramatically from week to week but even so you have to think that with just three qualifying round games still to play Wairarapa-Bush are in a good position to strongly challenge for a top-four spot.
Coming up this Saturday is a difficult assignment at home against Buller but then will come matches against Poverty Bay in Gisborne and East Coast in Masterton. Poverty Bay have just the one win to their credit thus far while East Coast have still to open their account. Whichever way you look at those games the chances of Wairarapa-Bush picking up the maximum five points have to be rated as bright.
Beating Buller first would be a big help to the Wairarapa-Bush cause, not only because it would very probably see them move ahead of that side on the points table but because it would also place extra pressure on them for their last two qualifying round games against Wanganui and King Country. Lose even one of them and their Meads Cup hopes would be gone.
Both Buller and Wairarapa-Bush started the Heartland season with narrow losses, Buller by 26-28 to South Canterbury and Wairarapa-Bush by 16-18 to King Country. Since then they have both strung four wins together, Buller over Mid-Canterbury (34-32), Poverty Bay (30-18), West Coast (48-0) and East Coast (54-22) and Wairarapa-Bush over Horowhenua-Kapiti (32-22), Mid-Canterbury (26-16), Thames Valley (28-18) and North Otago (38-22).
On that basis you could be forgiven for concluding that Buller has had the easier ride of the two sides. Only Mid-Canterbury of the four teams they have beaten appear to be realistic Meads Cup contenders while Wairarapa-Bush have disposed of two in that category, Mid-Canterbury and North Otago. And what’s more they were both away games and in the South Island where Wairarapa-Bush have not exactly excelled themselves in years gone by.
Whereas most of the Heartland teams Wairarapa-Bush have faced this season have placed greater emphasis on forward domination than backline flair Buller promises to be an exception. They have, from all accounts, pace to burn on their wings with Setefano Sauqaqa and Anthony Tailua, scoring three tries apiece in the big win over East Coast, and in first-five James Lash they have something of a scoring machine, especially in the goal kicking department. His play-making skills have also been well documented.
Wairarapa-Bush head coach Josh Syms and his assistants Joe Harwood and James Bruce have some selectorial headaches leading into Saturday’s game. For starters midfield back Izaq Foa’l, who was so impressive in the win over North Otago last Saturday, has an ankle injury which makes him a 50-50 prospect at best and wing Glen Walters is on the doubtful list as well.
The move to have usual No 8 Sam Gammie play at lock against North Otago and relegate Andrew Smith to the reserves came to nought in the end when James Goodger pulled out with a hamstring strain just before game start, meaning Gammie returned to the loose forward trio and Smith started with usual partner Andrew McLean, in the middle row. Goodger is expected to be fit for this weekend so whether the Gammie experiment will happen then remains to be seen.
It will also be interesting to see what Syms and co do with in-form prop Stan Wright who missed the North Otago trip because Wairarapa-Bush filled their “loan player” quota with Foa’l, John Ika and Zac Guildford. If Foa’l can’t play that problem will be solved but if he is available the selectors have a difficult choice to make.
Wellington referee Vincent Ringrose will have control of Saturday’s Heartland fixture with Alistair Payne and Chris Jefferies as his assistants. The match will kick off at 2.30pm and will be preceded by an under-18 match between Wairarapa-Bush and Wanganui which will get under way at 12.30pm. Payne will referee that game with Jefferies and Shay O’Gorman as his assistants.