Johan van Vliet on the charge for Wairarapa-Bush in 2012. PHOTO/FILE

Tako to add grunt in pack

RUGBY

CHRIS COGDALE
chris.cogdale@age.co.nz

Farriers Wairarapa-Bush coach Joe Harwood wants his team to hit the ground running by playing “finals footy” against Whanganui in the opening round of the Heartland Championship at Memorial Park today.

Harwood is in his third year in charge of the side, having taken them to the Lochore Cup final last season after finishing second to bottom in 2017.

Harwood has continued his policy of using homegrown talent with minimal use of imports.

All the players in the squad are homegrown players, although some now play outside the region.

Former Wairarapa College star, hooker-flanker Bruce Kauika-Petersen plays for Wellington’s Northern United club, and the Tufuga brothers – Sam, Kirk, and Ueta turn out for University in Palmerston North. Max has remained here.

Having a squad of players of Wairarapa-Bush origin was especially pleasing and the attitude in the team was brilliant, he said.

“There’s a lot of passion for the jersey and the guys will go out there and give their all for each other.”

The team’s pre-season had them beat New Zealand Army 53-10 and Wellington Samoans 39-15. A 21-29 loss came against Wellington Development after trailing 0-24 at halftime.

Harwood said he was happy with “bits and pieces” of the games.

They managed to build some good continuity and work some good tries against the army side.

“Wellington Development we needed that game. We needed it to be bigger and more physical and it certainly was. We went into our shell a bit in that first half.”

There were a couple of things the team “just haven’t nailed” yet.

“Our goal is to hold the pill and try and build some pressure and wait for those opportunities to open up.

“We haven’t done that yet consistently in the past two weeks, in particular, so that’s a big focus for us.”

The 2018 team were one of the smallest in the competition but Harwood said this year’s team were bigger than last year’s but the fitness was better.

Ex-army trainer Scott Cottier, who is part of the team’s management, had worked hard to improve the players’ fitness.

“Scott’s been awesome coming on board with us. He’s a straight-up sort of character which is exactly what we need. To be fair, the guys have responded pretty well to that.

“To be competitive, we have to bring an edge to our game and that’s around our fitness and ability to defend.”

The team would play a similar style to last year by working the ball to the outside channels and then reloading from there.

“We’re always looking for the small men to come and do some work around the breakdown.

“Once you go six-plus stages, gaps start to open up with lazy defenders, so we need to get those small guys in there working hard and spotting the gap.”

Poor goalkicking in the lead-up games was a concern so extra work was needed there, he said.

Harwood did spring a minor surprise by naming usual No 8 Joe Tako on the blindside for today.

“Joe was massive in the warm-up games. Our original plan was to bring him on as an impact player with 30 minutes to go, but he’s been so good we just have to use his power from the start.”

Harwood is also rapt to have flanker Johan van Vliet back in the team for the first time since 2013.

He was strong over the ball, a strong defender, and a damaging runner with ball in hand. His experience would be invaluable.

Harwood was looking forward to unleashing the Tufugas on the opposition.

“Today will be a special occasion for Wai-Bush and the Tufuga family.

“They bring a lot to the team, they’re very strong and they’re the type of guys you go out to play for.”

Harwood said the team needed to get off to a good start to make the Meads Cup semifinals.

“This game [Whanganui] and North Otago next Friday night are vital if we want to play finals footy and that’s where we want to be.”

Spectators can expect a bit of old-fashioned tradition from the team. Cottier has insisted the players take the field all with their socks pulled up.

“A bit of old school but there’s always a place for it. Just the simple things, turn up prepared and make sure you’ve done the little things in the lead-up to it and go out on the field and do the job.”

Coggie’s prediction:

Wairarapa-Bush to win by the skin of their teeth.