|Home Team:||Steelform Wanganui||Visiting Team:||Thames Valley|
|Referee:||Rebecca Mahoney||Captain:||Roman Tutauha|
The Following is from the Whanganui Chronicle
By: Jared Smith, Jared Smith is sports editor of the Whanganui Chronicle
There will be quite the thirst for redemption across the new-look Steelform Wanganui team that has to front on Cooks Gardens in the rematch of last year’s disappointing Meads Cup semifinal on Saturday.
Preparing to face 2018’s champions Thames Valley, Wanganui coach Jason Caskey was always facing squad changes for the first home game of the Mitre 10 Heartland Championship, given his team made the largest contribution to the NZ Heartland XV to play Manu Samoa at Eden Park with four, including their entire No 9 to No 12 backs lineup.
But the unavailability of two other players and the jolt to the system of last weekend’s tough 28-18 away loss to Wairarapa Bush means Caskey is not only looking for the second-tier guys to fill spots, but for original selections to justify their place.
With the exception of 2017 Meads Cup winner Nick Harding coming off the bench into fullback, as Tyler Rogers-Holden shows his versatility by moving into halfback, the outside backs combination remains the same from those exposed with weak defence in two of Wairarapa Bush’s tries.
Likewise, while the NZ Heartland XV and another commitment meant flanker changes were necessary, with one exception the tight five has been retained.
They simply must perform in both the lineout and the breakdown against a Thames Valley forwards unit that thrives on keeping the ball locked up for long periods to strangle their opposition’s opportunities, while grinding them down.
“It cost us badly last year in the semifinal,” said Caskey.
“Can’t do much about [Heartland XV], so just got to roll on.
“It’s a good opportunity for a few other boys to put their hands up. Not many of them haven’t had the experience.
“I’ve got 100 per cent faith they’ll do the job.
“To be fair, a lot of them are marginal positions because some guys didn’t perform too well against Wairarapa Bush.
“You don’t panic in week 1, but you’d be an idiot [to retain them] if you don’t perform after two games.
“Some of them have to take them….or their chances might be limited.”
With workhorse flanker Angus Middleton unavailable, the most welcome of the returning faces is nuggety flanker Jamie Hughes, who due to Wanganui’s preseason policy of prioritizing those who could attend group training sessions, has instead been dominating with the Whanganui Maori and the Development XV.
“Very lucky to have him, we would have liked to have him there at the start, but he had a new business and couldn’t get to things that we were doing [preseason], and he understood that,” said Caskey.
“But now, we’ve got a need, Angus has gone away for three weeks.
“We’d be mad not to chuck Jamie in there.”
Jamie Hughes is back at openside flanker.
While Hughes was probably Wanganui’s best player in last year’s semifinal loss, Dane Whale and Ethan Robinson didn’t even get to leave the bench, yet now they have the chance to prove a point as the starting first five-second five combination.
Their attacking impetus will be important, but could count for little if they are playing behind a beaten pack, so Caskey has focused on the engine room this week, including a 5-2 split on the bench.
“Thames Valley are very strong up front, that’s what we’re looking at. We need more firepower up front.”
After a strong performance in the Development XV’s win over their Wairarapa Bush counterparts, Kamipeli Latu comes straight back tight-head prop, with Caskey using tonight’s training to decide the loosehead out of last weekend’s starters Gabriel Hakaraia and Wiremu Cottrell.
“We probably lacked a bit of ball carrying – [Latu] probably adds a bit more there – but scrumaging is a big thing, so Gabriel and Wireumu add there.”
Another choice to be made at training is who will take the reserve halfback role for their Heartland debut out of Cameron Davies and Kahl Elers-Green – the former being quicker, but the latter having more strength.
After he last started a Heartland Championship match in 2017 as an outside back, Samu Kubunavanua officially completes his forwards transition as the blindside flanker.
Former winger Samu Kubunavanua will play his first Heartland match as a starting loose forward.
Also returning to the team on the bench are lock Jack Hodges, who debuted in 2018 against East Coast, and loose forward/prop Ranato Tikoisolomone, who last played a first class game in the Ranfurly Shield challenge to Canterbury in June 2017.
With Troy Brown unavailable this week, Josaia Bogileka could also make his first class debut as the outside back reserve.
If it seems Wanganui are having to do a lot of scrambling, their opposition are in the same boat.
Thames Valley have given up their 2018 Heartland Player of the Year in flanker Brett Ranga to captain the New Zealand team, along with fellow 2018 incumbent hooker Glen McIntyre, while they are joined on Eden Park by winger Harry Lafituanai.
That’s 84 caps worth of experience going out the door for the defending champs, who were upended themselves at home last weekend against Poverty Bay, 17-15.
Caskey said there had been a push around the Heartland unions to postpone this round and extend the season out an extra week, but given he has always preached the importance of building depth – be it with rotation policies on the good days and having injury coverage on the bad – he is happy for a few of the underdog teams to have a fairer shake on Saturday.
“The higher the pecking order of the teams, the more guys in there [for New Zealand], it evens itself out.
“[Thames Valley] lose a few key guys as well, but it’s what your [wider] squad’s about.
“That’s why we selected 30 instead of, say, 26.”
The visitors still have plenty of talent, including 2018 NZ Heartland rep Sam McCahon at centre, and their lock Connor McVerry, who took on Sam Madams and Wanganui skipper Roman Tutauha in the lineout last year and defeated them.
Wanganui had a bonus on Tuesday when they received a visit and some tips from three men who know how to win and how to overcome adversity – the Hurricanes coaching staff of John Plumtree, Darren Larsen and former All Black Carlos Spencer.
Plumtree & Co did a session with Caskey and his staff, then helped out with the evening training run.
“They were good value. It’s better at this time of year – last year they came quite late,” said Caskey.
“They had some good stuff, very worthwhile having them there.”
Kickoff tomorrow is 2.30pm.
The teams are:
1. Gabriel Hakaraia/Wiremu Cottrell; 2. Roman Tutauha (c); 3. Kamipeli Latu; 4. Sam Madams; 5. Peter Travis Hay-Horton; 6. Samu Kubunavanua; 7. Jamie Hughes; 8. Bryn Hudson; 9. Tyler Rogers-Holden; 10. Dane Whale; 11. Tom Symes; 12. Ethan Robinson; 13. Shai Wiperi; 14. Vereniki Tikoisolomone; 15. Nick Harding.
Reserves – Forwards: 16. Joe Edwards; 17. Raymond Salu; 18. Jack Hodges; 19. Ranato Tikoisolomone; 20. Chris Breuer. Backs: 21. Cameron Davies/Kahl Elers-Green; 22. Josaia Bogileka.
1. Lance McIntyre; 2. Kieran Ramage; 3.Nico Aandewiel; 4. Sione To’a; 5. Connor McVerry (c); 6. Matty Axtens; 7. Fred Kei Fotofili; 8. Dan Pearce; 9. Matty Fisher; 10. Regan Crosland; 11. Logan Mitchell; 12. Danny Kayes; 13. Sam McCahon; 14. Matiu Abraham; 15. Jason Laurich.
Reserves – 16. Brooklin Toia; 17. Silveni Topou; 18. Keegan Lewis; 19. Laulea Mau; 20. Ben Bonnar; 21. Cole Berridge; 22. Bobby Motuliki.
* * * *
After their impressive win in the last RDO Shield round over Wairarapa Bush Development XV in Masterton, the Wanganui Toyota Development XV will have to sit out on Saturday after Wellington Maori have defaulted for the second weekend in a row.
As a result, the curtain raiser game becomes a dream opportunity for the Wanganui Under 14 squad, who will move their game with Horowhenua Kapiti U14 from Spriggens Park to the main stage, kickoff 1pm.