Copthorne Wairarapa Bush coach Reece Robinson has proved to be a hard taskmaster in his first year in the role, not only on his players but also himself.
Although he can take some satisfaction with the season, despite their championship aspirations ending with their 33–27 loss to West Coast in the Lochore Cup semifinal at Trust House Memorial Park, Robinson intends to waste little time before getting back to work and preparing for next season.
The 2023 Heartland campaign was a significant improvement on the 11th and 10th placings of the previous two seasons, with the team recording four wins and four losses in round-robin play. Disappointingly, two of those losses were on the road against stragglers Horowhenua-Kapiti and Buller, which cost Wai Bush a potential Meads Cup [top four] semifinal.
Finishing sixth and hosting the Lochore Cup semifinal was still a big step up, but it fell short of Robinson’s goal of winning silverware in his first campaign in charge.
“I’m probably a bit hard on myself at times. I have high expectations, and people can say I’ve done a great job, and it’s your first year, but we potentially could’ve had a fantastic year,” Robinson said.
“I’ve got to sit down over the next few weeks and reflect on what I could’ve done better, but I’ve built some good foundations, and hopefully, next year we can build on that.”
That will start with a player review with each of the squad members, outlining their strengths and areas they need to work on with the aim of getting the players back stronger, fitter and hungrier for next season.
Robinson highlighted several positions where the union lacks depth, and he intends to work on bringing players into the province to strengthen club rugby. Lock, a big tighthead prop, big ball-carrying loose forwards, first-five, and midfield are areas where he felt needed reinforcements.
“I’m going to sit down and do a bit of a review and look at positions where we need to get players in and start working as soon as I can,” he said.
“I’m really going to do a lot of work in the offseason about getting some players in key positions that we don’t have the depth in and try and spread them among the clubs as well.
“If the core of our players can hang around, which I’m pretty confident they will, then we can try and fill in those gaps, and we’ll have a bloody good team next year, and I’m looking forward to next season already.”
Robinson is also sticking true to his word that local players will be given the first opportunity to put their hands up.
“As it was shown this year, we don’t have the depth, so instead of me going out getting loan players, I’d rather go and get players to come into the region to play club rugby to strengthen us up as well but the mindset for next year is still having local players, and maybe an origin player here or there, but it is key that we give the local players the most opportunity we can.”
Robinson also stressed the need for clubs to be more proactive in looking for players to help strengthen the club scene. The dearth of playing numbers was evident, particularly within three of the clubs – East Coast, Gladstone and Greytown regularly battling to field a full squad.
“How and where they do that, it’s up to the clubs, but I know that Carterton do a great job, and they have a connection with a club in Fiji,” he said.
“The clubs struggle for depth, and a lot of the clubs rely on players coming to them, but the game has changed now. It’s not just Wairarapa; it’s all over New Zealand where clubs are struggling, and if clubs don’t be proactive, you’ll probably find in the next four or five years, clubs will have to merge.
“These players they bring over are going to strengthen up their club and the local club competition and the player depth. It’s good for us Heartland coaches, too, because we have more players to choose from instead of looking outside.”
Before starting preparations, though, Robinson plans to spend some time with his family, as well as enjoy the rest of the Rugby World Cup.