Pressure on for Ratana in senior club rugby championship
Pictured Above: Leon Mason, seen here about to score for Wanganui Past Players against King Country Past Players in 2019, will need some “Mason Magic” in his role as Ratana coach. Photo/ Lewis Gardner
By: John B Phillips
If Ratana is to have any thoughts of repeating last year’s unbeaten record in the Whanganui senior club rugby championship this season it will need quite a lot of “Mason Magic” from coach Leon Mason.
The 2021 Tasman Tanning senior championship starts on Saturday and Mason faces the daunting task of moulding together a Harvey Round Motors-sponsored revamped squad minus at least a dozen of the players who won 11 games on the trot last winter.
The major defections are former Whanganui and Horowhenua-Kapiti reps Kane Tamou and Cody Hemi who helped the Butcher Boys win Meads Cup finals.
Halfback Tamou, who was in the 2016 Meads Cup champion squad during his 10 caps for Whanganui in 2016, and also won Lochore Cup Heartland honours for Horowhenua-Kapiti, has moved to Turangi.
Tamou was named player of the day in the senior club final against Ali Arc Logistics — DNA Kennels Marist Celtic last year, scoring a vital try in the 29-20 victory.
Hemi, then a Collegiate School 1st XV player, collected a Meads Cup gold medal when he had eight games for Wanganui’s 2017 Heartland champion squad as fullback and first five.
Although playing in the senior grade last season, Hemi came on as a substitute in rep matches against King Country and Wairarapa-Bush but is returning to the Horowhenua this season, playing in Foxton.
His astute play at centre enabled Ratana to perform so well last year when the club dropped down to the senior ranks after eight years of struggling in the premiers.
A third ex-Whanganui rep who played for Ratana last winter, mid fielder Te Tua Kemp (who returned from Ngamatapouri), is again available.
Te Tua Kemp kicked a conversion when he took the field as a substitute in a 60-24 home win over Thames Valley in his sole appearance for the Butcher Boys in 2016.
Ratana has lost both winger Jamie Robertson and hooker Shade Tuaine-Whanau to Marist this season.
But the champions have retained goal-kicking fullback Brooklyn Herewin, who landed a penalty and three conversions in the 2020 final, inside back Bernard Mathews and winger Tex Seduadua.
They will be vital backs for coach Mason in his bid to match last season’s golden run which included a clean sweep of all senior grade honours.
Mason will need all the experience he gained during his 64-cap rep career between 2000 and 2009 when he twice won NZ Heartland selection (2006-08), and was in the 2003 Whanganui NPC Div 3 champion team and the 2008 and 2009 Meads Cup winning sides.
Leon contested two Ranfurly Shield challenges — coming on as a sub in a record 3-86 loss to Waikato at Tokoroa in 2000 and at first five in a 61-6 loss against Wellington on Cooks Gardens in 2009.
He played major roles in Ratana’s hat-tricks of Whanganui premier club titles (2001-02-03) and again in 2006, in Ratana’s Grand Challenge Shield honours in 2000-01-03, in Paul Mitchell Cup (first round trophy) success in the same years, and he won MVP honours in 2005 plus co-winner in 2008 with Marist’s Ron Katonivere.
His knowledge worked wonders as a winning coach a year ago but now, along with assistant Charlie Mete, the pressure is on to rebuild a vastly different Ratana side.
There are a number of hardened former premier players available, if required, but the club is hoping to bring in youngsters to bolster the playing strength.
Ratana faces a tough opening day clash — hosting 2019 champions Bennett’s Taihape on Saturday with the Stihl Shop Whanganui Challenge Shield at stake.
Although it was 39-15 to Ratana at Memorial Park last year, Taihape poses a major threat this time around.
If successful this weekend Ratana has a string of four successive away fixtures — v Marist Celtic (ranked No 2 last year), fourth-ranked Utiku OB, Ruapehu (back in the competition this year) and Border.
Last season Utiku lifted the Challenge Shield off Taihape 20-10 on opening day but then lost 48-17 away against Ratana who withstood eight challenges.
With Ratana depleted the senior competition is wide open with Metropolitan’s Celtic and Kaierau, Northern’s Taihape and Utiku and Rangitikei’s Hunterville all likely contenders.
Celtic has been knocking at the championship door since entering the competition in 2007, only twice (2008-09) failing to reach the semis.
Coach Duane Brown has the majority of the 2020 squad that only dropped two close games — 16-20 and 20-29 both to Ratana — available
Two of the squad, halfback Lamaire Allen and utility back Rangi Kui, have moved up to the Marist premiers.
Celtic hosts Ratana (second game), Gemini Pepper Construction Kaierau and Kelso Hunterville but is away to all three Northern Whanganui sides on successive weekends.
The aim of Celtic is to break through with an elusive senior title but there are some formidable opposition teams in the grade.
Kaierau, who last won the championship in 2001 and 2005, has retained most of last year’s squad that finished third, suffering losses to Celtic 21-24, Utiku OB 17-27 and Ratana l0-20.
Coach Brendon Lawrence has gained three new backs — mid fielder Matt Alec (Metro Colts), college halfback Carlos Hill and utility back Tyree Lama, son of former rep Areta Lama.
Kaierau opens the season with a Friday night home game against Marist Buffalos.
Last season’s third placing was the highest since finishing fourth in 2009 and 2011.
Since dropping down from the premiers in 2018 and placing ninth in the seniors Utiku OB has emerged as a strong unit, finishing runners-up to Taihape in 2019, beaten 29-3 by champions Taihape in the round robin series, and finishing fourth last year, with only three defeats.
With most of that squad available, coaches Wiremu Hirini and J J Walker have the talent to win a first union-wide senior title.
Kelso Hunterville, with eight championships between 2007 and 2018, dominated the senior grade during the new millennium but has slipped to fifth over the past two seasons.
Coach Greg Parkes, who played in the club’s last finals victory (23-10 against Celtic three years ago), will have two quality Manawatu players in his squad this season.
They are Feilding OB-Oroua inside back Blair Osborne and PNCOB No 8 Zane Tamati.
Hunterville won only half of its 10 fixtures last season, a below par performance that disappointed the older supporters.
The side faces a testing start this campaign with a three away match schedule, against near neighbours and arch-rivals Speirs Food Marton, Black Bull Liquor Pirates and Taihape.
Toss in home games against Utiku OB and Kaierau the next two rounds and Hunterville will need to show early season form.
The side hosted a strong Border combined premier-senior team in a hit-out last weekend.
Taihape, the 2019 titleholders, slipped to sixth last year but cannot be left out of contention under coaches Dylan Ratana and Tane Martin.
There have been good numbers at training and an opening day away Challenge Shield trip to Ratana will be a good litmus test for the squad.
Taihape is a lot better team than last season’s sixth ranking.
A new lease of life has been evident in the McCrea Scanning Counties training runs with coaches Richard Shaw and Jerome Nahona determined to improve on last year’s eighth placing by the 2002 champions.
They host last season’s bottom-placed Black Bull Liquor Pirates who have received a shot in the arm with the return of former Heartland reps Lasa Ulukuta and Clive Stowers from Kaierau.
Powerful 28 rep cap Ulukuta and pacy 2009 rep winger Stowers, a former top try scorer in premier club rugby, helped Pirates beat Waverley Harvesting Border 20-19 in the 2015 premier final.
Their yo-yo switching between Kaierau and Pirates continues with their presence with the Spriggens Park club very timely.
With the Pirates 125th jubilee looming up next year the club would love a strong senior grade showing this season.
Coaches Brett Turner and Matt Davis are happy with around 25 turning up for training including a Fijian contingent including a third Kaierau acquisition, lock Francis Vakadravu.
Marton, champs in 2017, has slipped to seventh the last two seasons and will again include a number of Island players, Marist Buffalo’s (ninth in 2020), Ruapehu (returning after a year out of the grade) and Border (10th the last two seasons) complete the senior ranks.
The premier championship starts on Saturday week.