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Premier rugby restart with shields on the line

It will be opening day: Take 2 for Tasman Tanning Premier rugby tomorrow with prestigious shields on the line at the eastern and western outposts of the district.

The WRFU is still rewriting the 2018 draw after the 11th hour withdrawal of Utiku Old Boys, who have ensured their club’s survival by committing to enter a team in the Senior competition.

For now, the WRFU can go with the games originally planned for Round 2, after canning the opening day last Saturday.

Therefore, Harvey Round Motors Ratana will head to Memorial Park to face PGG Wrightson/Balance Taihape for what will be an historic match with the return of the Whenuaroa Shield.

Spokesman Matthew Thomas explained the 97-year-old shield was first presented in 1921 for sub-union Maori rugby games, and has been reinvigorated to be contested once a year between the two clubs, with Taihape awarded the rights of being first holders.

“The shield was originally presented by ‘Punch’ Pine, Wilson Winiata and Joe Whenuaroa, who are the descendants of the late Ms Maata Kotahi,” said Thomas.

“Kotahi succeeded her land, which is now held in an Ahu Whenua Trust, on behalf of their-now 74 owners.”

The 2300ha farm property is most commonly known as Makokomiko Station, located north east of Taihape on the Rangitikei River, and run by trustees Warwick Whenuaroa, Phillip Cashell and Simeon Nepe.

Kotahi was buried at the Ratana Pa.

“Many games were played since [1921], though only 31 of the results were recorded on the shield,” said Thomas.

“Trustees and owners of the Station commissioned the restoration of the original shield and decided to create a new competition in appreciation of the significant relationship between Taihape and Ratana.”

Don Tantrum restored the shield, adding a new oak backing to represent the results from this game and beyond, while the original sterling silver plates represent the prior history.

Whichever team holds the shield will defend it in their home match of the two Premier games between the clubs annually.

The Ahu Whenua trustees, their families, and all Taihape and Ratana community members are invited to attend the inaugural shield game, with the prize to be presented in the clubrooms afterwards.

Looking back to the past to find the way forward is very much on the mind of Steelie Koro, the 51-game capped Steelform Wanganui former captain and Meads Cup winner, who is making his Premier coaching debut for Ratana after transferring over from Dave Hoskin Carriers Marist.

Koro confirmed he plans solely on coaching, after playing a key on-field role for Marist in the past two seasons, as he takes on a very young Ratana squad with an average age of 22, with his oldest veteran being 26.

“It’s not about me, it’s about them,” he said.

“It’s going to be a bit of a test for myself – coaching at this level – but I’ve got enough support behind me. If I’ve got questions, they’re answered.”

After a disastrous 2017 without a win, Ratana has still cultivated some player depth, as Koro said he is working with over 30 players, unfortunately just not quite enough to also field a Senior team.

“Numbers are really good for the club, a positive sign for them.

“The hardest thing now is me picking 23 players each week, while keeping the other 7-10 players coming.

“I’ve been in a few teams where players get disheartened and you don’t see them for a few weeks.”

Having joined Premier rugby in the early 2000’s when Ratana were the dominant team and the Pa was a feared place to play, Koro said he wanted to keep the club from having the problems which have afflicted Utiku.

“I looked at the big picture of Wanganui rugby in general and certain teams are struggling – Ratana being one, Utiku the other.

“It’s a shame Utiku pulled out. You look back at these teams as being the grassroots.”

Without Ratana being competitive, Wanganui rugby could miss out on discovering more players like Kane Tamou, the club’s sole Heartland Championship representative in the last few seasons before transferring to Horowhenua Kapiti in 2017.

“They don’t lack passion, they don’t lack personnel, they’ve just lost their way in competing – they’re just turning up for the sake of it,” said Koro.

“Hopefully we’ll upset a few teams and turn a few heads.”

Koro had expected to meet that first test last weekend against Black Bull Liquor Pirates, but instead heads to Taihape for his first competition match in charge.

“It’s hard to say if it’s good or not, because everyone wants to get that first one out of the way.

“It’s about physical conditioning at the moment.”

Waverley Harvesting Border coach Justin Lock resisted the chance to sidle up to Pirates coach Phillip ‘Red’ Morris to ask if he was put out by the missed round after they passed each other going into the same Marton bakery on Wednesday.

Border, who would have had the Premier bye last weekend anyway, are the only club who could keep their original preparations heading into the first defence of the Grand Hotel Challenge Shield against Pirates in Waverley tomorrow.

“It’s definitely early enough for our team, that’s for sure,” said Lock.

“The quality is there, just not as many numbers as you’d like to start the season.

“Both team’s might be a little understrength.

“Getting [Pirates] early is ideal. But Red will have a few tricks up his sleeve, he always does.”

Border, the 2017 runnersup, may struggle initially as their impressive front row is not yet active – with the returning Tietie Tuimauga unavailable this week, while Wanganui incumbents Hamish Mellow and Kamipeli Latu are also away.

Meads Cup-winning skipper Cole Baldwin is retired from all rugby, as has 2017 club captain Fraser Middleton and staunch veterans Andrew Retallick and Clint Skedgwell, while former Fijian test lock Sekonaia Kalou has declared for Settler’s Honey Ngamatapouri.

Speedy backs Isaiah Hooper and James Forsyth are not here, while reserve first-five Simon Badger will have family commitments and be on stand-by if needed.

“It’s still a strong team and a good feeling good amongst the boys,” said Lock.

Halfback Lindsay Horrocks has been elevated to the captaincy with young flanker Angus Middleton stepping up as his deputy, partnering in the loose forwards with Chris Breur and Ranato Tikoisolomone.

Wanganui midfielder Kaveni Dabenaise takes on added responsibilities, while Lock has lured talented playmaker Tyler Rogers-Holden back from Manawatu club rugby to play first-five.

In the other games, Marist will host Ngamatapouri at Spriggens Park, while McCarthys Transport Ruapehu meet Wanganui Car Centre Kaierau in Ohakune.

By: Jared Smith, Jared Smith
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