IF STEELFORM Wanganui’s eight debutants to Pink Batts Heartland Championship rugby are feeling any nerves at the Levin Domain tomorrow they need only look into the steely eyes of their captain for inspiration.
Other than playing away from Cooks Gardens, the timing is perfect for Peter Rowe to play his 100th first-class game for his province against a resurgent Horowhenua Kapiti team, as Wanganui tries to secure a crucial opening game victory for the first time since 2012.
Rowe’s Ruapehu teammate Fraser Hammond will also have his 50th first-class representative match, having debuted in 2007 and having stints in and out of the squad.
But since 2003, pre-dating Heartland rugby, other than just occasional short absences for injury, Rowe has been a continuous fixture on the side of the Wanganui scrum, with coach Jason Caskey acknowledging his massive contribution over 12 years. “If you had 22 of him, you’d be right.
“He’s the sort of person that won’t want a lot made about it, but it’s a motivating point for the rest of the team.”
Having been in the Wanganui team as first a player and then the coaching staff for nearly a decade himself, Caskey pointed out it was easier back in the day for a regular to become a game centenarian – there’s been 11 for Wanganui – when 18 games a year including preseason matchups would count as first-class fixtures.
Now, only the Heartland games, of which there can be no more than 10 per season, are regularly given that status, which makes Rowe’s commitment to training and playing top-level amateur rugby for well over a decade that much more impressive.
“You’ve got to endure a long time to pick up your 100,” said Caskey. “It’s a testament to his longevity.
“He never shirks anything, Fraser’s the same. At training, these boys get into it and encourage everyone else.”
A lot will be asked for the newcomers like the midfield combination of second five Troy Brown and former Fijian Under-20s player Poasa Waqanibau tomorrow, as the entire Wanganui team is lighter but quicker around the field.
“It’s exciting for them but also a lot of pressure, coming into an environment you’re not used to.
“It’s staying composed and not panicking. You can compromise a bit of skill and flair if you’re prepared to work hard.”
The biggest step up will be for Collegiate schoolboy Stephen Perofeta, who will start at fullback, with sole import player Trinity Spooner-Neera still recovering from his rolled ankle.
Caskey said 64-game veteran Ace Malo, still nursing an injury for the next three weeks, was named as an unofficial 27th man for the squad, as it is fully expected Perofeta will be named in the NZ Secondary Schools team after the early Heartland games and become unavailable.
“Extremely talented boy, and plenty of potential. It’s just great to utilise these guys before they depart to the bigger unions.”
In the forwards Malakai Volou will cover No8 with Bryn Hudson still injured and veteran Lasa Ulukuta withdrawing from the campaign due to work commitments, specifically on Fridays.
“He doesn’t want to be transferred off it and that became seasonal work,” said Caskey.
The other surprise in the finalised 26-man squad is Marist’s Viki Tofa, who withdrew from club rugby in June, being talked into returning for his second Heartland campaign to fill the crucial reserve prop role behind Brett Turner and Kamipeli Latu.
Caskey, every understated, said it didn’t take much convincing to get the talented Tofa to come back, with props being at a premium for the union.
“He was sort of, reasonably keen [when] we asked him.”
Faced with playing two-time champions Mid Canterbury and then perennial contenders North Otago in coming weekends, the blow torch really is on Wanganui to secure a good start if they hope to return to Meads Cup contention.
“[Winning] takes a hell of a lot of pressure off. [Otherwise] you back’s against the wall right from the start,” said Caskey.
The Horowhenua Kapiti squad contains 11 players who rejoiced in lifting the Bruce Steel Memorial Cup with a 34-23 defeat of Wanganui at Cooks Gardens last year, possibly the home team’s worst performance of that competition.
Key men include Rowe’s direct opposite – the erstwhile flanker and captain Antony Fox – and goal-kicking centre Perry Hayman, while dangerous winger Michael Tambour is currently bracketed to start with Teegan Minkley.
The side has at least three imports from Wellington club rugby and will have plenty of belief after reaching the Meads Cup semis last year, but Caskey likes his team’s confidence for tomorrow.
“You can have all the belief in the world – the Wallabies put out plenty of belief last week too – but you have to back it up.
“Some of the team’s you think would be easy, [if] you think that, you get bitten in the arse.”
By Jared Smith – Wanganui Chronicle