Heartland Rugby is a step down from the lofty heights Andre Taylor reached in his professional career, but the veteran utility back is relishing the chance to pull on the green and red of Copthorne Wairarapa-Bush for his debut in the grassroots championship tomorrow.
Taylor played 54 games for the Hurricanes from 2009 to 2014, represented the Maori All Blacks, and came desperately close to making the All Blacks before heading to play in Jpan.
Since ending his professional playing days, Taylor, 35, has turned to coaching and was called in as attack coach by first-year Wai-Bush coach Reece Robinson. He also fronted for Greytown, showing his class in the 29-26 loss to Carterton in the Moose Kapene Cup final.
In his first representative appearance since playing for the Manawatu Turbos in 2019, Taylor will co-captain the side and line up as fullback against Ngati Porou East Coast at Trust House Memorial Park — and he can’t wait to see some action.
“I’ve pretty much played every other level apart from being an All Black, so to be able to play Heartland is pretty special,” Taylor said.
“When you look at the quality of rugby, it’s not as good as the higher level, but it’s not about that at the end of the day, it’s about developing younger and newer talent and trying to bring that through.”
Taylor anticipates plenty of passion and aggression in the games and believes that no team can be taken for granted. He is confident that Wai-Bush, have one of the smaller squads in terms of player size, will be competitive.
“Results haven’t gone well for them in the last year or so, but … there’s some exciting talent in our team this year.
“Depending on who you play and the size of the other squads, you’re going to be looking at playing certain styles of footy.
“If you’re playing a bigger-sized team, you’re going to be playing wide to wide, but if you’re playing a similar team to us, then anything can go.”
Like head coach Robinson, Taylor said the team won’t die wondering, and spectators can expect to see some exciting rugby from the young players.
“Just the flair and the energy they play with. They’re not scared to have a crack, and that’s what rugby is about.
“Some teams go quite defensive and just kick and play the safe game, but we have to realise that we’re playing the game we love, and the game we love is attacking and defending hard and doing all the little fun things that you do when you’re enjoying rugby.”
One of those talented young players is the elusive Fiula Tameilau, who was sensational at centre in the 73–41 win in the warmup fixture with Manawatu Evergreens two weeks ago. Tameilau played on the wing against Wellington Samoans in the final preseason hitout last week, but Taylor felt he wasted there, so he has moved to fullback, with the little Tongan slotting into centre.
“He [Fiula] could probably play at a higher level if he moved to another union. We had to make room for him somewhere in there, and I’m on my way out, and he’s on his way in, so you have to give him a crack.”
Although starting in the ‘15 jersey’, Taylor said he will still play a pivotal role with his experience and helping out the younger players with their positional play.
“I haven’t got the speed that I used to, but I’ve got the brains, and my brains have to be a bit more on to it now these days, and I just have to be a bit smarter and position myself two steps ahead of the opposition, so I’m in the right spots.
“My kicking game has developed a lot over the past two or three years, and although I haven’t been playing as much, I’ve still been working on it because I want to get into my coaching,” Taylor added.
Centurion Inia Katia, who has been a revelation since moving from the backline to the loose forwards, and co-captain Sam Gammie, who can play anywhere in the forward pack, and second-five Tafa Tafa also bring plenty of experience. Taylor believes their influence is vital for a successful campaign.
“There’s a great balance to the squad, and those boys have been around the game for so long. The good thing about them is they focus really hard on their game, and they perform really well, and their actions get the respect of the younger boys coming through and the rest of the boys, which is awesome.”
Taylor said the top four is a realistic goal “if the boys pull the strings and everything sticks”, but “they have to do the little things off the field.
“We’ll be quite competitive. But like any game, you’ve got to turn up on the day. We’ve been building nicely over the preseason, and that last hit out against Wellington Samoans was probably a good game for us just to show that we need to be more physical, but I believe we could make the top four.”
Taylor expects a tough first-up challenge from East Coast, with the likes of fellow Maori All Black Joe Royal and former Hurricane Nick Crosswell possibly lining up for the sky blues.
The TAB has Wai-Bush warm favourites at $1.40 to kick off with a win, and East Coast are at $2.80.