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Gladstone lining up three-peat

Inia Katia . . . Gladstone’s masterful playmaker. PHOTOS/FILE

Marist will be seeking to live up to promise
Gladstone, Marist, the Coasties and Greytown have a confident air about them heading into the start of the club rugby season on Saturday, writes Times-Age sportswriter Chris Cogdale.

CHRIS COGDALE
[email protected]

GLADSTONE

The elusive three-peat is “definitely what the players are talking about”, according to Gladstone coach Steve Thompson.

The defending champions head into the season with pretty much the same squad who dominated in 2018.

The only notable loss is Matty McRae, who is shearing in the UK.

Otherwise Thompson can call on a vastly-experienced squad who know how to win when it matters.

The forward pack will be built around a solid tight five of props Aaron Cook, Charlie Booth and hooker Richard Puddy, with tough-as-teak Andrew McLean and Andrew Smith making up a formidable middle row.

Eddie Cranston, Ryan Knell and the unpredictable Epeli Rayaqayaqa are likely to be the first choice loose forward trio.

The little master, Inia Katia, is the jewel in the crown in the backline. His eye for a gap and amazing speed off the mark make him a danger to any team.

Thompson is aware that the other clubs are lifting their games.

“I imagine they’ve been recruiting good players, but we’ll wait and see what happens. The opening game will give us a good idea where they’re at.”

Gladstone open their season against Carterton in a repeat of the 2018 final.

Coggie’s rating:

Gladstone know how to win the big games. Quality game-breakers. Legendary coach. Champions.

EAST COAST

The Coasties’ depth will be tested early on, with the loss of two key players to injury and possible early season unavailabilities.

Coach Byron Karaitiana is looking to boost his front row stocks, with injured props Terry Norman [back] and Hayden Kerr [back and knee] likely to be sidelined for the season. He is hoping to fill the void with some young players.

Much of East Coast’s play centres around their dynamic loose forwards led by the never-say-die Joe Feast and Jeff Meredith.

“We’re good and aggressive around the rucks, if we don’t give away too many penalties, and we can get parity in the set pieces, we’ll be a threat to any team,” Karaitiana said.

If the forwards can get enough ball the Coasties have a young and talented backline led by Brian Arnold, who Karaitiana rates as probably the best halfback in Wairarapa-Bush, to take advantage of any opposition defensive frailties.

Utility back Josh Arnold and fullback/utility Guy Percy, the son of former Wairarapa-Bush halfback and East Coast stalwart Mark Percy, and assistant coach-player Cody Whittaker are other players to look out for.

Karaitiana is targeting the Tui Cup playoffs.

“We’re definitely aiming for a top four spot, we’ve got the personnel to do it.”

East Coast kick off at home against Martinborough.

Coggie’s rating:

Feisty, never give up attitude. Lack of depth? Top four a stretch too far.

GREYTOWN

Injuries and unavailabilities have led to an awkward start to the season for Greytown coach Eli Telfer.

Gone are veteran first-five Kingi Kaiwai [retired], winger AJ Manley and midfield back Michael Te Whare [business commitments], midfielder Matt Henderson [shoulder injury], lock Regan Pope [transferred to Eketahuna], No 8 Tavita Isaac and midfield back Cyrus Baker [both taking time away to get their bodies right].

The club have made some useful acquisitions. Jonty Miller, a lock-loose forward who has previously played for Pioneer, has returned to the province having played for Poneke in Wellington last year.

Loose forward Chas Matthews, lock-loose forward Heta Phillips, veteran prop Nick Hohepa and fullback Nick Olson are others Telfer expects to have big seasons, along with Usoalii Samuel, a strong midfielder from Paremata-Plimmerton in Wellington.

Telfer is confident that “if we build our combinations, are reading off the same page and have strong team harmony we will be contenders”.

Greytown host Eketahuna to kick off their season.

Coggie’s rating:

Always punch above their weight. Depth in the backs. In the hunt for the top four.

MARIST

Marist’s James Goodger . . . arguably the most influential player in the province.

The team that promises so much but too often fails to deliver.

That’s been the story for Marist over recent years.

After an all-too-common slow start in 2018, the green and whites left it far too late to make their charge for the top four, having to settle with winning the Hodder-Steffert Trophy for the bottom four.

Much will revolve around co-captain James Goodger. Arguably the most influential player in the province, Goodger not only plays well above his weight at lock or loose forward, he has the speed to have an impact out wide and is a more-than-useful goalkicker.

Former Wairarapa College pupil Stan Wright, 18, son of former Cook Island international Stan Wright, is one of two promising young props, along with Jeremiah Mapusua, 20, who made his Wairarapa-Bush debut in 2018.

One major loss is star winger Soli Malatai, who is trying his luck in Wellington club rugby. The speedster hit the headlines with a record five-try haul in a Heartland Championship match against Buller last year.

Experienced halfback, Ben Hurley, will be a welcome addition to the side, as will outside back Chris Matthews, a newcomer from Canterbury.

Co-captain and midfielder Pua Tafa, first-five Bon Wilson, lock-flanker Kieran O’Brien and loose forward Matt Masoe, who was in the New Zealand Heartland Under-20 squad last year, are other players expected to make an impact.

Team manager Mark Brown said making the top four was the target.

“We can’t afford to start slowly, you need to be in the top four at the end of the first round to have a show. We have a pretty young, talented squad coupled with lots of experience.”

Marist play Masterton Red Star in their opening fixture.

Coggie’s rating:

Have the ability. Good enough on their day. Potential finalists.

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