Kickoff finally! Intense Heartland campaign expected, starting with Poverty Bay
Above: Dane Whale will play his 50th first class game for Whanganui on Saturday
By Jared Smith
It will be compact, and it could be one of the most intense Bunnings Heartland Championship campaigns on record as Steelform Whanganui’s belated campaign kicks off against Poverty Bay on Saturday.
Having lost the impetus from their physical preseason matches against the development sides of Taranaki, Hawke’s Bay and Wellington, it was back to square one for coach Jason Caskey and his squad when the move to Level 2 allowed them to resume training last week – adding an extra Saturday session to their usual Tuesday-Thursday hit-outs.
“Had a couple last week, so trying to play a little bit of catch-up,” Caskey said.
The squad had kept their fitness up during the untimely four week break with a road-work competition on their Butcher’s Boys online page – trying to beat each other for speed and total kilometres.
“They all did a reasonable amount of running. But when they came back Thursday last week, you saw the handling skills, the basics [suffered], with dropped ball – people hadn’t had a ball in their hand in a month.”
If there was one saving grace, it is Caskey has an injury-free line-up to consider – captain Campbell Hart and fellow loose forward Jamie Hughes, who missed preseason, are now back to 100 per cent.
“It didn’t help that they were just looking forward to getting some game time under their belt, and it was 3-4 weeks more [wait].”
As a result of Level 4 lockdown starting the week of the planned kickoff for the competition, the draw has been redone where the four games scheduled over that timeframe have now been moved to the end of the competition in October-November.
It has also been decided for the first time since Heartland’s introduction in 2006 to do away with semifinals – the Top 2 teams after the regular eight games will qualify for the Meads Cup final, while the third and fourth-placed side will playoff for the Lochore Cup.
Of Whanganui’s last four trips to the Meads final – 2015-17 and 2019 – three of them came via qualifying in third or fourth and then winning away semifinals.
Caskey is well aware this campaign will be more like a football league table – every game will count towards getting out at the head of the pack and staying there, with a late run of form not enough.
“Just got to tick boxes and we’ve got to set targets and address them, week by week.
“If you lose two [games], you’re going to struggle to make that [Meads final].
“Every team gets beaten a couple of times. You’ve got to hope it’s like that through the comp.”
Traditionally, the last round robin games are almost like quarterfinals as teams fight to get into either the Meads or Lochore Cup playing groups.
This time, those battles will start over a month out – Caskey seeing it as a positive that Whanganui themselves will play the usual semifinal-calibre unions like South Canterbury, 2019 champions North Otago, and 2018 champions Thames Valley in their last three games.
“When you get a chance to put a dent into them, take points off them, it’s good.
“It’s hard when you don’t play a team and they’re a point ahead of you and you can’t do anything – they get up on bonus points.
“Two years ago we had to win five in a row to give ourselves a chance, and the boys ticked the boxes and got up for the challenge.”
But Caskey can’t look too far ahead as this weekend’s opponent Poverty Bay, originally the fifth game but now the first, can be truly unpredictable.
The two sides played the final game between Heartland unions in 2020 at Napier’s McLean Park last October and it proved a classic – Whanganui blowing out to 41-12 ahead until Gisborne union came roaring back, finishing just short at 41-38.
It sums up Poverty Bay’s wide open attack style – they fashioned a 2-2 record in 2020, scoring 140 points and conceding 134.
“They’re always an extremely dangerous team, it’s one team you never take likely,” said Caskey.
Key men from that 2020 game still in the squad are veteran first-five Kelvin Smith along with determined outside backs Tione Hubbard and Andrew Tauatevalu, while look out for monster-sized prop Jarryd Broughton coming off the bench.
For Whanganui, Caskey is pleased with how comfortably Te Rangatira Waitokia has slotted back into the side he last played for as a teenager in 2016, now showing his experience from dozens of professional-level games.
“Marked difference from the Te from now, to what was last time.”
Should he take the field, first-five Dane Whale will play his 50th first class game for the province, having debuted in 2014 and been part of multiple Meads Cup wins, while captaining the side on a handful of occasions.
“Been an outstanding team man for us for quite a few years now. Well deserved,” said Caskey.
While the game is closed to the public under Level 2 conditions, the match will be live-streamed online and should hopefully be a spectacle – while Caskey hopes by Whanganui’s second home game on October 2, the public will be back at Level 1.
The Whanganui side will be selected from:
Backs: Josaia Bogileka (Marist), Craig Clare (Border), Cameron Davies (Kaierau), Lindsay Horrocks (Border), Kameli Kuruyabaki (Manawatu/Player of Origin), Peceli Malanicagi (Otago/Player of Origin), Ezra Malo (Kaierau), Joeli Rauca (Ngamatapouri), Ethan Robinson (Kaierau), Tyler Rogers-Holden (Taihape), Timoci Seruwalu (Ngamatapouri), Alekesio Vakarorogo (Border), Te Rangatira Waitokia (USA/ Player of Origin), Dane Whale (Taihape).
Forwards: Matthew Brown (Taihape), Gordon Coogan (Utiku Old Boys), Dylan Gallien (Taihape), Shepherd, Gabriel Hakaraia (Ruapehu), Campbell Hart (Ruapehu), Hadlee Hay-Horton (Taihape), Peter Travis Hay-Horton (Taihape), Jamie Hughes (Ruapehu), Kieran Hussey (Border), Josh Lane (Kaierau), Cade Robinson (Kaierau), Josefa Rokotakaia (Kaierau), Viki Tofa (Marist), Roman Tutauha (Ruapehu), Jack van Bussell (Kaierau), Semi Vodosese (Border), Keightley Watson (Metro Colts), Ben Whale (Taihape).
Relive highlights of last year’s exciting clash between Whanganui and Poverty Bay