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Coaches demand better starts

Wairarapa-Bush vs King Country
2.30 pm

Copthorne Wairarapa-Bush coach Reece Robinson has made seven changes for tomorrow’s crucial Heartland Championship clash at Trust House Memorial Park.

Robinson was “just bloody embarrassed” with last week’s first-half effort against Horowhenua-Kapiti, which saw his team cough up 21 unanswered points before halftime, and although there was a spirited response in the second 40 minutes to finish 24–19 losers, that wasn’t enough to save some players.

First-five Ben Brooking, wingers Nikora Ewe and Nathan Hunt have been dropped from the game-day squad, while flanker Inia Katia will sit out the match with a niggling injury.

There is only one new face in the starting forward pack, with Carterton lock Malakai Biumaiwai to make his debut, which sees clubmate Logan Wakefield move to the blindside flank. Prop Stan Wright Jnr, hooker Sase Va’a, and flanker Epeli Rayaqayaqa are promoted to the starting XV, replacing hooker George Parke, prop Lewis Bush and flanker Jared Hawkins, who drop to the bench, while prop Ty Waight returns to the squad, and Tuhirangi’s Tyne Stafford is set to make his Heartland debut as cover for number seven.

Wai-Bush’s first four games have been blighted by sluggish first halves, a fact not lost on Robinson, who has made the changes with the aim of making a stronger start.

“We’ve put a big emphasis on the forwards this week to be a lot more physical, and we had a pretty big contact session Tuesday night.

“And that’s part of the reason why we brought Malakai into the middle row,” Robinson said.

“Malakai is in there because of his size. We need his physicality, and we need his go-forward, but generally, across the whole forward pack, we just need to be a lot more physical so we can get some quality ball for our backs.”

The inclusion of the big Fijian also provides more options at lineout time, although Wakefield will remain the go-to man, a role he has commanded over the four games.

“Logan, his role will be the same at lineout time, and we’ll push Malakai out into the backs when we go to short lineouts, so nothing changes there, and on our full lineouts, we’ll put Malakai at the back, and it will give us a bit more grunt.”

The most wide-sweeping changes come in the backline, with veteran Tipene Haira starting at first-five with new loan player Jayden Keelan providing backup off the bench. Tafa Tafa returns to second-five after missing last week, forcing Charles Mataitai to the wing, with Freddie Eschenbach coming on to the opposite wing.

Keelan, from College Old Boys Manawatu, has been called in to provide more direction and speed to the pivot’s role, and Robinson feels the 21-year-old, who has been on the radar of NZ Sevens coach Tomasi Cama, will bring plenty to the side.

“Most of his rugby has been played on the outsides, wing and fullback, and he’s extremely quick and a smart player. He played a few games over in Spain as a 10 but also filled in at COB for a good part of the season. He ripped it up there, he also played for the Evergreens a couple of times, and he will be really good value for us.”

Robinson is also keen to see Eschenbach let loose on the wing, saying he has been rewarded for some exceptional form for the Wai-Bush Barbarians, although he hasn’t played for the last couple of weeks due to a niggly injury.

“He’s an exciting young player, and he gets his opportunity on the edge. He can create something out of nothing, and his skill set is really good. He’s pretty quick off the mark, and that’s something we missed at the weekend, hence the reason he’s been given the opportunity.”

Despite the wide-ranging changes, Robinson said there is no intention to change the tactical approach.

“The way we play, nothing has changed. I think in the second half, we came out and played really, really well at times, and that’s the way we’ve got to start. “We know the areas that we need to improve on, and that’s definitely our ball carry and ball security, but the main thing is around our individual mindsets and skillsets that let us down a lot and gave them [Horowhenua-Kapiti] opportunities which they converted into points.”

Robinson admits to knowing little about King Country, saying that he was focused on getting his own players sorted.

“From what I’ve watched, they have pretty big second-five – a Fijian boy who has done some damage the last four rounds. They’re pretty conventional, and they like to go through the middle; their forwards are not too bad, and there are some pretty good finishers.

“The key for us is to focus on our job, and if we can do our job a lot better than last week, I’m pretty confident.”

Wai-Bush go into the game in sixth place with two wins and two losses, while King Country are 10th with only one win.

As for the Rugby World Cup, Robinson is in the South African camp, saying they’ll be too big for everyone, and that showed against the All Blacks, who he believes will finish second in their pool. He also rates Fiji a strong chance of a top-two finish in their pool.

Wairarapa-Bush team:
Forwards – Tupou Lea’aemanu, Sase Va’a, Stan Wright Jnr, Sam Gammie [captain], Malakai Biumaiwai, Logan Wakefield, Epeli Rayaqayaqa, Isireli Biumaiwai.

Backs – Isaac Bracewell, Tipene Haira, Tafa Tafa, Fiula Tameilau, Charles Mataitai, Freddie Eschenbach, Aseri Waqa.

Substitutes:
Forwards – George Parke,
Ty Waight, Jared Hawkins,
Tyne Stafford, Lewis Bush
Backs – Sam Walton-Sexton, Jayden Keelan, Cyrus Baker.

WOMEN
Wairarapa-Bush vs King Country
12.30pm

Like his male counterpart, Wairarapa-Bush women’s co-coach Scott Collins wants a better start to tomorrow’s must-win game at Memorial Park.

Last week, Wai-Bush slumped to a 25–10 deficit to Thames Valley before fighting back to lose 37–34 after conceding a last-minute try.

“The biggest thing we got from last week is we showed a bit of resilience to come back,” Collins said, “but we started flat, and the main thing is to get a good start and play off the front foot.”

A win would keep alive the Green and Reds’ prospects of making the final of the North Island Heartland Championship, whereas a loss would probably confine them to a third-fourth playoff at best.

Collins hopes to field an almost unchanged XV that started against Thames Valley, but will be without flanker Xanthe Somerville, who has joined the Manawatu U18s preparing for the Hurricanes U18 camp. Somerville’s absence is offset by the return of Madison Johnson.

There is good news with Dutch international Annemieke van Vliet available to take her place in the front row before she leaves to join the Wairarapa hockey team at the National Tier Two Championships in Hamilton.

“Annemieke gives us a bit more impetus in our forward pack, just her presence, and I think we’re a better side when she’s there, and she’s been in fine form for us. She and Paige Walker are a great one-two punch at the moment.”

Collins expects a physical challenge from second-placed King Country, who trounced East Coast 58–6 last week.

The game is Wai-Bush’s last home game of the season.

Chris Cogdale
Chris Cogdale
Chris “Coggie” Cogdale has extensive knowledge of sport in Wairarapa having covered it for more than 30 years, including radio for 28 years. He has been the sports guru at the Wairarapa Times-Age since 2019.

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