STEELFORM Wanganui coach Jason Caskey is refusing to let any kind of late-season lag permeate the ranks of his squad ahead of what could be their final Cooks Gardens match against Poverty Bay tomorrow.
With three teams running tight for the two home semifinal spots in the Meads Cup of the Pink Batts Heartland Championship, on paper the third-placed Wanganui should be factoring in maximum points against Poverty Bay, sitting 11th.
However, after scoring four tries in three games, big flanker Bryn Hudson is being rested as a precaution on his pulled hamstring from last week’s win against Thames Valley, while inspirational captain Peter Rowe has a crook calf muscle and did not train on Tuesday night, currently being bracketed with Malakai Volou.
With next weekend in Masterton sitting as the key game against Wairarapa Bush, hovering not far back on the table, tomorrow could be one of those awkward afternoons where the adrenaline levels just cannot be raised to normal standards.
Not so, says Caskey.
Wanganui may be many things tomorrow but flat won’t be one of them.
“I can guarantee that won’t be happening,” the coach said.
“We said to them, ‘Poverty Bay are a good team’ – where they are sitting on the table is no reflection. We’re still not in the Meads Cup. I made that absolutely clear.”
The Bush are likely to get maximum points against winless East Coast tomorrow and if Wanganui slip up, they will be going down there for a virtual quarter-final to try and avoid a third straight year in the Lochore playoffs.
“There’s a major job this week and all the guys are aware of it,” said Caskey. “It will be hammered well and truly home.”
There is also the motivation of Wanganui wanting to finish with their home record in the black.
While sitting on a perfect 3-0 for away games, the sole Cooks Gardens victory over Buller was bookended by the injury-time loss to Mid Canterbury and mud-filled draw with King Country.
“As a unit we’ve been disappointed with what we fronted up with at home,” said Caskey.
“If it is the last game at home for the year, we want to reward the spectators.”
Ranata Tikoilosomone, also a try scorer as reserve No8 last week, comes into the starting line-up, with Hudson expected to be ready for the following Saturday.
Recovered from his torn calf, Michael Nabuliwaqa comes straight back to the wing, slightly surprising considering that other than a couple of missed tackles last weekend, Simon Dibben had been performing well in the spot.
“Michael was playing pretty bloody well before he got hurt,” said Caskey.
“We just feel that Michael offers a little bit more on attack – more creative.”
Jon Smyth again swaps with Sam Madams at lock.
The other key switches are up front with both prop Viki Tofa and hooker Cole Baldwin coming back into the starting line-up. Caskey said Tofa is basically the team’s tighthead specialist, with Kamipeli Latu switching back to loosehead after trying that position.
The coach extolling the team to take Poverty Bay dead seriously is compounded by the overall squad’s lack of experience against the team in red.
Only two of them – fullback Ace Malo and halfback Lindsay Horrocks – survive from the Wanganui team that last played them in a 25-21 comeback win in Gisborne in 2013.
With over 130 caps, Sione Ngatu was a No8 then but will now prop against Wanganui, while lock and captain Murray Hewson brings plenty of big-match knowledge.
Poverty Bay thrashed East Coast 60-15, but have since lost to Thames Valley (43-37), Horowhenua Kapiti (54-26), North Otago (30-23), Buller (36-14) and Mid Canterbury (38-25).
– Kickoff is at 2.30pm. The curtainraiser is Wanganui U18 against Wairarapa Bush U18 at 12pm.
By Jared Smith