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An intriguing first round of club rugby

The 2024 Wairarapa Bush premier club rugby season kicks off tomorrow when eight teams hit the field in the Lane Penn Cup. CHRIS COGDALE takes a look at the opening round of games.

Martinborough vs Carterton

Martinborough [2.35pm] Chris Jefferies

Two-time defending champions Carterton are missing some key players for their tough away trip to Martinborough in what is arguably the game of the round.

Coach Garth Thomson has retained a solid core of players from last year’s squad, including experienced captain Daryl Pickering and exciting backs Aseri Waqa and Fiula Tameilau; however, there are some notable absentees, such as inside backs Ben Alvis [returned to the UK], and Ben Brooking [returned to Petone], while Wai Bush utility forward Logan Wakefield doesn’t return from playing overseas until June.

Thomson outlined Carterton’s plans to field two teams this year, and they have made a big push to attract
kids who have left college.

“We’ve worked really hard to get some youth into the club, so the senior reserves will be quite young, and a big chunk of our main team will be one, two, or three years out of school,”

“The whole thing is around the culture of the club, and we made a big shift last year when we brought in our Pasifika day, so building on last year and pushing those family-orientated scenarios, and we’re gaining players from that to protect for the future.”

Like other clubs, getting numbers in the early season is proving to be a battle for Martinborough coach James Bruce.

“We will need luck on our side; we already have injuries, so our senior reserve team is already helping,” Bruce said.

“Our biggest gain will be our youth coming through and having a small reserves team.”

The “green and blacks”, though, will still field a useful side with a competent forward pack, but it is their talented backline with the likes of veterans Tipene Haira and Nathan Hunt and talented youngsters Conall Doyle and Shane Colton, along with new recruit Harry Eschenbach from Gladstone that could set the competition alight.

Bruce’s goal is simply “to be better than before and improve and expose players to another level.”

Coggie’s prediction:

Your guess is as good as mine, but maybe Martinborough on their hard-and-fast track in a high-scoring, entertaining clash.

Marist vs Pioneer
Memorial Park [2.35pm] Alistair Payne

Nothing beats a traditional local derby to kick off the season, and it doesn’t get much tougher than this clash between last season’s beaten semifinalists.

Adding to the occasion, Marist will also be playing in memory of life member Rob Hargood, who died earlier this week, with his family to present a jersey to the premier team before kickoff.

Marist, though, go into the season without some key players, namely loose forward Marcus Ale with a ruptured patella tendon that will sideline him for the season, prop Jeramiah Mapusua and hooker Tua Levi [overseas] and prop Mikey Brown [unavailable]. However, most of their exciting backline remains intact from 2023.

Pioneer coach Victor Thompson has retained much of the squad that made last year’s semifinals, with the addition of two promising wingers from Manawatu – Lincoln Allen-Jury from Hato Paora College and Camryn Caffell, who was part of the Manawatu Turbos Under-20 side.

A big blow, though, is the loss of the cornerstone of the scrum, with Buddah Mason ruled out for the year with a knee injury.

“Numbers are fairly consistent with a core squad of around 25, with a couple more to join in the next few weeks,” Thompson said.

“We would like a few more in our squad, but we have a solid thirds [senior reserve] team that are keen to support us when needed.”

Thompson said the aim is “to improve on last season, so looking at top four and see how we go from there.”

Coggie’s prediction:

Marist has plenty of motivation with Rob Hargood’s passing, which might prove to be the difference between the two fierce rivals.

Eketahuna vs East Coast
Eketahuna [2.35pm]
Shay O’Gorman

Eketāhuna have retained much of the core of the side that battled through last season, finishing in eighth place in the premier championship.

Experienced Wai Bush representatives Sam Gammie and BJ Campbell and promising players Ashton Coates, Daniel van Dyk, and Dezharne Maslen-Smith give the union’s northernmost club a solid base.

Eke have also continued their recent Fijian connection, with a couple of families settling in the town to work in forestry. A big blow is the loss of influential midfielder Robbie Anderson, who has hung up his boots.

New East Coast Guy Williams’s aim for the season “is to have two competitive teams, a strong club, and a strong build for the next few years.”

Like Eke, the Coasties struggled through much of the 2023 season, scoring only two wins and finishing sixth in the championship, and this season will be about building depth for the future. Williams said the numbers are improving, although the early season could be challenging.

“Some young shepherds are busy feeding stock and pretty busy with these dry conditions. Some players are moving up to the A team from the thirds, and some players will play for both teams and move to the A team as they gain confidence.”

Coggie’s prediction:

A hard one to gauge, but the home-ground advantage might just sway it Eke’s way in a close one.

Masterton Red Star
vs Greytown
Colombo Rd [2.35pm]
Kaleb Rowlands

Coach Chris Senior is realistic about the challenge ahead as Masterton Red Star [MRS] return to the premier division for the first time since 2019 when they take on last year’s beaten finalists.

“We have no massive goals or aspirations in regards to winning the competition or making a top four,” Senior said.

“We are extremely young, with only three players who are over 30 years old. They will literally be boys playing men in this competition. It will be tough – extremely tough – but our focus is on developing and growing these young guys.”

Senior said his first target is to get the club’s first premier win in 11 years, then evaluate at the halfway point and reset the goal for the end of the season.

Promising hooker-prop Caedman Hawkins from Martinborough, flanker Tama Bartlett, who has returned from a year overseas, and talented inside back Junior Malatai from Wairarapa College are the newcomers in the squad of 30, and Senior like what he sees.

“They bring enthusiasm and great rugby nous. They have all played a high level of rugby. They have been drivers on the field and in all pre-season sessions.”

MRS face a tough reintroduction to the top level against a Greytown side known for its never-say-die attitude, although, like most other clubs, there have been plenty of changes.

Gone are props Tolu Fahamokioa and Lewis Bush, halfback Riley Walton-Sexton, and former Hurricane Andre Taylor. Their departure has been offset by the recruitment of last year’s Wairarapa College captain Conley Alexander at hooker, loose forwards Cooper Thompson and Chris Dickson, and centre Carlos Rimene.

Coach Kerin Herlihy said the new players fit in well with the environment and have brought the right attitudes and good skill sets to make an impact.

Herlihy believes the team “are a little light in a couple of areas, but as was the case last year, a great club attitude should see us through.”

His aims for the season are simply to keep improving from week to week.

Coggie’s prediction:

A Masterton Red Star win would be the perfect start for the rejuvenated club, but a massive upset, and it’s hard to see anything other than a comfortable Greytown victory.

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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