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Taihape’s brothers in arms await Ruapehu

By Jared Smith

They are arguably the team with the most continuity of any Tasman Tanning Premier side – not surprising considering over a third of the starting XV have played together since they were children.

It’s derby weekend for Premier with all six teams playing their near neighbours, and after two grand final appearances and one title from the last two seasons, Byford’s Readimix Taihape look to set their mark against the rebuilding mountain men of McCarthy’s Transport Ruapehu at Memorial Park on Saturday.

The dynamic of the bigger country cousin has swapped between the sides in the past two years – Taihape having won both games against Ruapehu last season for only the second time.

And while most were expecting Taihape to win going up the Waitotara Valley last Saturday to face Settler’s Honey Ngamatapouri, eyebrows were raised when someone finally got back into cellphone reception to reveal the 52-7 scoreline.

“In recent years, Ngmat always start stronger than they finish, and it was two and half hours [travel], but we’ve got our own standards, regardless of where we play,” said coach Tom Wells.

Having made a solid reputation in Otago rugby before heading to England to play while teaching in Tunbridge Wells, No 8 Ben Whale made it a family reunion to remember with three tries.

Having split his time with Senior rugby last year, Luke Whale has slotted into first-five, which allows third brother and Steelform Whanganui stalwart Dane Whale to move to fullback, with fellow utility rep player Tyler Rogers-Holden returning to halfback fulltime.

“All the brothers are playing together – in our team we’ve got two sets of three brothers,” said Wells.

In addition to the Whales, all the Hay-Hortons are on the field together again in 2020 Whanganui prop Hadlee, returning 2019 rep lock Peter-Travis, and fellow prop Slade.

“With Matty [Brown] and PT, we’ve got our locking partnership to start with, but got other locks – Beau Walker would start for any other team.

“The forward pack’s bloody strong, as always.”

Even with stalwart No8 Tremaine Gilbert not returning for a few weeks due to a back fracture, Taihape have their bases covered with Ben Whale and talented loose forward Lennox Shanks, and are bringing along another young prop in Isaac Roth, who came from Canterbury to farm.

“We’ll have a good test this weekend with Gabe [Hakaraia] and Campbell [Hart],” said Wells of Ruapehu.

“With there being six teams, you’re every chance to win [the competition], so that’s probably the mindset, along with the other teams.

“We’re as strong as we’ve ever been. Just got to win the home games and get as many points on the road as we can.”

Fellow coach Kim McNaught can see how the dynamics have shifted when he played in the Ruapehu team that ran roughshod over Premier in the mid-2010’s, no clearer than last weekend’s 36-5 loss to Wanganui Car Centre Kaierau.

“To win in Kaierau, you have to be on the ball. Ethan [Robinson] just kicked us around the park and Dylan [Bowater] was everywhere.”

As well as Hakaraia, Hart and industrious flanker Jamie Hughes, Ruapheu have reinforced from last year with former Whanganui captain Roman Tutauha back in club rugby, while former rep lock Nick Cranston literally walked out of the bush to pull the jersey back on.

Key to their chances will be the progress of the new No 9-10 combination of Oli Keast and Keaton Norling, the former from Southland and the latter a Whanganui junior rep.

They must grow into the jerseys once worn by big names such as Short, Clare, Millar and Fifita.

 “Those days are over now – so those boys got to do their own thing,” said McNaught.

“As a club moving forward, we need these guys.

“Yes, we’re light in the backs, but if we can match them in the forwards and they get a testing at second [five] or centre, we’ll be right.”

And that is one area of Ruapehu’s game that stays strong – no matter what else, they can hold possession with patience and guile.

“You can’t score off first, second, third phase – you’ve got to grow phase pressure.”

In last year’s lopsided competition with a clear Top 3 and Bottom 3 sides, Ruapehu kept their 13 year semifinal streak alive, but McNaught would much rather accomplish the same in 2021 with more than a 2-8 record.

“No-one wants to get handed a semifinal.

“We’ll set goals to top Marist and Ngamatapouri, but we’ll knock off a Border or a Taihape if we can.

“You have to aim big, if not, you’re wasting your time.”

In the other derby games, Waverley Harvesting Border host Ngamatapouri for the annual Friday night ‘Duck Shooting’ game, at 7.45pm at Dallison Park, while Kaierau resume their cross-town rivalry with Dave Hoskin Carriers Marist at Spriggens Park on Saturday, kickoff 2.30pm.