Kaierau and Taihape: The form book vs the history book

By Jared Smith

One team still has to answer the nagging question of whether or not this is their time, while the other knows exactly how to make the moment become their time.

The Tasman Tanning Premier 2nd vs 3rd semifinal between Wanganui Car Centre Kaierau and Byford Readmix Taihape is a complete toss up at the Country Club on Saturday, given what has gone before for these two evenly-matched rivals.

Securing the home game predominantly by virtue of a 22-12 win over Taihape at Memorial Park on August 8, thereby avenging their 6-5 loss in the season opener on July 4, this is the second year in a row for the mainly-young Kaierau group in the playoffs.

However, Taihape thrive on both their slight underdog status and ripping up the form book – as they proved last year by going all the way from distant fourth to winning the Premier title for the first time.

This is the team’s first meeting in a championship semifinal and for the current iteration of Kaierau their first time hosting, while with the exception of 2017, Taihape have made the semifinals every year since 2013 and only one of them was a home game.

Coach Tom Wells said they will do what they have always done – Saturday morning brunch at the clubrooms with their Bennetts Taihape Senior squad, then onto the bus for the cruise down State Highway 1 and drive back up from Marton to handle some business.

“The pressure’s not really on us this weekend,” said Wells.

“The beauty of our squad is we’ve got a lot of guys that have been there before.

“The senior player group is big as it’s been from my time as a player.

“We’re really comfortable about what we’ve got in place – we’ve got the cavalry and we’ve got the structure.”

Always looking to emphasise timing for a winning season, Wells has managed Taihape’s injury concerns in the last two weeks – deliberately sending a small squad up Waitotara Valley to face Settler’s Honey Ngamatapouri, and trusting some of their lesser lights in the narrower win at home against McCarthy Transport Ruapehu last Saturday.

“In the past we’ve been undefeated in the first round but that didn’t win us the comp.

“Everyone’s 100 per cent ready, managed to rest a couple of niggles last weekend as well.

“A lot of guys who do the 70-80, we pulled them off after 50.”

Skipper and crucial lineout man Matt Brown (above) is over his leg injury, although his absence against Ngamatapouri meant Taihape gave another responsibility to arguably their player of the season in regular try-scoring hooker Dylan Gallien, who led the squad despite the presence of former captain-coaches Dane Whale and Tremaine Gilbert.

“Those older guys can’t play forever, so you’ve got to start thinking about the future,” said Wells.

“More than half the team [could lead] – like Wiremu [Cottrell], Cyrus [Paringatai].”

Paringatai had returned to the regular midfield pairing with Jaye Flaws, while after rejoining the squad in Ngamatapouri, experienced utility back Luke Whale has stayed with the Premiers after playing most of the season with the Seniors.

Dane Whale

Kaierau have lost a handful of noteworthy names in the last couple of weeks – like primary goalkicker Shandon Scott and 2019 Heartland Hurricane forwards Kohlt Coveny and Josefa Rokotakala.

“We’re thankful we’ve had a big squad because we’ve been through a few people the last few weeks,” said co-coach Carl Gibson.

However, Jack van Bussel will return to the front row after his ‘safety first’ resting against Dave Hoskin Carriers Marist, giving Gibson the luxury of alternating the likes of hooker-No8 Joe Edwards and the cast-iron veteran Lasa Ulukuta, who returned from Black Bull Liquor Pirates this season and brings plenty of crucial finals experience back to the club.

Without Scott, young captain Ethan Robinson (below) has been putting in the extra goal-kicking practice.

“He was doing that the other night, so if it comes to that, we need him to be accurate,” said Gibson.

“[Taihape] know how deliver and they know how to play finals.

“As they showed in the final last year, they just never die, they’re never out of it.”

Gibson hopes his wider squad have learnt the lessons from 2019 when they lost 19-3 in the semifinal up in Waverley.

At the moment of kickoff, only two players in the team including legendary player co-coach Ace Malo had been in that situation before – Kaierau it is understood had a very physical and emotional Thursday training session, which may have mentally taxed them before the big day.

Now, Gibson knows it is a comfortable week’s buildup and cooler heads which will prevail.

Lasa Ulukuta

“I think everyone’s been a part of that. This year has been so strange, where you just have to play each week and it could be a final [game].

“It’s another one of those weeks we just look to improve…but the consequences [if we don’t] is that it’s over.”

He is looking for a big match from the likes of Robinson and lock Josh Lane, who remember not only the 2019 club semifinal, but being in a Steelform Wanganui squad that won six sudden-death games to make the 2019 Heartland Championship final, only to fall to North Otago.

“They’ve all had a bit of hurt, and they’ve got a little bit of experience now.”

The draw is

Premier semifinals (2.30pm kickoffs):
Border vs Ruapehu, Dallison Park
Kaierau vs Taihape, Country Club.