Joe Tako, with ball, had been in rampaging form during the preseason. PHOTOS/FILE
Farriers Wairarapa-Bush coach Mark Rutene is unsure what to expect when the Heartland Championship gets under way today, with a home game against Thames Valley.
Wai-Bush had a solid preseason buildup, with two losses to Poverty Bay and Wellington Centurions, followed by a confidence-boosting 34-20 win over a strong Wellington Samoans team before the country was plunged into the covid-19 level 4 lockdown for two weeks and level 3 for another week.
The team had their first training run since the move to alert level 2 last Thursday, and again on Saturday. Rutene was pleased with the progress during the preseason but said they have lost some momentum since the three-week break from training.
“The fitness levels are still there; we tested last Thursday, and I’m pleased with the fitness, but we’ve just lost a little bit of momentum,” Rutene said.
“We’ve just got to switch back into rugby mode, I think. We trained on Saturday, but half a dozen guys were out with work and other things, so there have been a few guys missing at training.”
Rutene named a squad of 28 players, but with the season extended until mid-November, some players have become unavailable because of work commitments. That includes outside back Matt Raleigh and midfield back Robbie Anderson, although he is available for today’s opening game.
As well, veteran lock Peter Beech is out with a back injury, and veteran loose forward Tavita Isaac has not recovered from a concussion suffered towards the end of the club season, while
promising young prop Tupou Lea’aemanu is stuck under level 4 in Auckland with his family.
“We’re probably down to 24 now, but we’re lucky because we did take a bigger squad, not for covid reasons, but now we’re just looking like a normal squad. We’ve tried to add to it, but it’s tough. If you were playing club rugby, you haven’t played for two months.”
Trying to get replacements for injured players throughout the championship could become a real problem.
“If I get an injury in six weeks’ time, trying to find players then who are motivated or fit or both, but everyone is going to be in that boat.”
Despite the disruption of the covid restrictions, Rutene still predicts the championship will be highly competitive.
“There are some good teams around. There might be a little bit of fallout for some of the teams, and with guys having to play until November, so for some of them, it won’t suit.”
Adding spice to the competition is the scrapping of the semifinals, with the top two teams to play off for the Meads Cup, the third- and fourth-placed teams to contest the Lochore Cup final, and the fifth- and sixth-ranked teams to play for a new trophy, which means a shift of focus for Rutene.
“We wanted to make the semis, and if you do that, you’re one game to make a final, but now we’ve got to make sure that we don’t slip up because it’s sudden death at the end.
“The first three weeks we’ve got some tough games – Thames Valley, South Canterbury [away], and Whanganui [away] – so we’ll just take it game by game and see how we go.”
Rutene has named an experienced and talented side for today’s opener. Former All Black Zac Guildford and former Tongan international prop Tolu Fahamokioa are both unavailable for the match.
Former Dutch international Johan van Vliet will captain the side from the openside flank. He is joined in the loose forwards by impressive blindside Jake Goodger, who will make his first-class debut, and powerful Fijian No 8 Joe Tako, who had been in damaging form in the preseason.
Veteran locks Andrew McLean and Vesi Luatua bring a wealth of experience to the engine room, while Lea’aemanu’s absence gives Marist prop Jeramiah Mapusua a start along with Lewis Bush and the experienced James Pakoti at hooker.
Halfback Daryl Pickering will have veteran Tipene Haira in the pivot role, but it is the midfield and outside back combination that brings an exciting dimension to the side.
The hard-running Ueta Tufuga will start at second-five alongside the elusive Tristan Flutey at centre with noted finishers Soli Malatai and Moomoo Falaniko on the wings and dangerous counter-attacker Tafa Tafa at fullback.
Rutene knows little about Thames Valley except they have recruited former All Blacks Sevens player Luke Masirewa, and they will be without their Auckland-based players.
“They will be well-coached, and I think that Matt Bartlett, who coached them to victory in 2018 is back as assistant coach.
“They will have height and have a bit of size in their backline, and that beat North Harbour Bs, so they’ve had a really good build-up. But they will be a bit disrupted with Auckland staying in level 4.
“We have home advantage, so that works for us, and we just need to start well.”
A new trophy, the President’s Trophy, has been donated by former All Black assistant coach Ross Cooper, who played for both unions. It will be played for whenever the two unions clash.
Today’s game is closed to spectators but will be live-streamed, with a link on the Wai-Bush Facebook page.
Wairarapa-Bush team: Tafa Tafa, Moomoo Falaniko, Tristan Flutey, Ueta Tufuga, Soli Malatai, Tipene Haira, Daryl Pickering, Joe Tako, Johan van Vliet [captain], Jake Goodger, Andrew McLean, Vesi Luatua, Lewis Bush, James Pakoti, Jeramiah Mapasua.
Replacements: Sam Gammie, Henry Wilson, Dominic Herlihy, BJ Campbell, Inia Katia, Sam Morison, Robbie Anderson.