Whanganui looking to secure Lochore Cup final, and prove point to Swampfoxes

By Jared Smith

It’s a dear shame it won’t be to earn higher prestige, like say, a Meads Cup semifinal, but Steelform Whanganui will be eager to prove a point when they face Thames Valley in Te Aroha on Saturday.

The unbeaten hosts managed to shut the door last weekend on Whanganui overtaking them to reach the top 2 and qualify for the Meads Cup final, via their 50-15 flogging of neighbours King Country.

Prior to the Level 4 lockdown in early August, this fixture was to be during the fourth round of the Bunnings Heartland Championship in early September, but instead it became the last round of a re-made schedule where the majority of Heartland unions – not Whanganui – voted to discontinue semifinals.

Photos by Merrilyn George

Despite sitting comfortably third, those two tough away losses to the Canterbury sides – and Thames Valley did not have to face table leaders South Canterbury – means Whanganui is playing to ensure a home Lochore Cup final.

“It’s a crap situation really, for the sake of one more week. I’m still really annoyed about the whole set-up,” said Whanganui coach Jason Caskey.

He compared it to the “ridiculous” situation for neighbours Taranaki, unbeaten favourites in the NPC Championship, now being unable to advance to the Premiership in 2022 due to the Auckland-based unions withdrawing from the competition.

The question now raised, especially after Whanganui over-ran North Otago 45-12 last weekend – another team Thames Valley didn’t play – is has the Waikato side been truly tested in 2021?

Photos by Merrilyn George

“Hard to say, they’ve had reasonably kind draw to them, put it that way,” said Caskey.

Thames Valley did beat Whanganui’s vanquisher Mid Canterbury 52-35 in round 5, however Caskey understands the Cantabrians brought a very injury-depleted side north compared to the unit that scored in the dying minutes against his team two weeks before in Ashburton.

“Not as big a test as it could have been, but obviously they’re getting something right.

“[My team’s] pretty happy, it’s a case of trying to carry that momentum through for another week.”

Mathematically, if beaten without a bonus point, Whanganui could still miss out altogether on the Lochore Cup game, should Horowhenua Kapiti and Mid Canterbury both win, and North Otago either lose or fail to match Mid Canterbury getting a bonus point victory.

Whanganui has gone with a settled lineup with the only change being the return of a refreshed Josh Lane at lock, while after his two tries last week, Canterbury’s Mathew Taula-Fili shifts back to No8, seeing Ben Whale return to the bench.

Again, Whanganui is going with a 5-2 split between forwards and backs in the reserves, which suits countering the style of game Thames Valley like to play, as it did with North Otago.

“It allows us a bit more firepower off the bench, fresh legs,” said Caskey.

“The guys that come on last week added well.

“Also, we have no reserve halfback anyway, so it would be a winger or outside back, and we have the guys already that can cover.

“We’re relying a lot on Lindsay [Horrocks] getting through game minutes, but he’s a tough character.”

Horrocks stayed on the field and got his bloody forehead taped up last weekend, but has had no ongoing issues with the cut.

“Just a bit of bark off, nothing too unusual for Lindsay.”

Another linchpin player will becomes the latest to celebrate a significant milestone this season as tough little flanker Jamie Hughes will play his 50th first class game for Whanganui.

Making his first-class debut off the bench and scoring a try in the 2016 Ranfurly Shield challenge to Waikato, Hughes soon stamped  his mark as a heir apparent to retiring club-mate Peter Rowe, playing a key role in the 2016-17 Meads Cup-winning squads.

“He’s a bloody quality player, obviously missed a little at the preseason, because he was playing the club rugby on a knee injury,” said Caskey.

That was about the only silver lining of the Covid-delay, as the 32-year-old had added time to fully recover.

“He’s been in really good form the last three weeks for us – his numbers are good, right up there with his ball work.”

Covid changes means this will be a unique trip – Whanganui flying into Tauranga airport instead of Hamilton on Friday, where they will bus for just over an hour to Boyd Park in Te Aroha, instead of further north to Paeroa Domain.

Whanganui will have a couple of light sessions at the ground, allowing their kickers to get a feel for the conditions, before kickoff on Saturday at the earlier time of 2pm.

The Whanganui team is

1.Hadlee Hay-Horton; 2. Roman Tutauha/Dylan Gallien; 3. Viki Tofa; 4. Peter-Travis Hay-Horton; 5. Josh Lane. 6. Campbell Hart (c); 7. Jamie Hughes; 8. Mathew Taula-Fili; 9. Lindsay Horrocks; 10. Dane Whale; 11. Alekesio Vakarorogo; 12. Ethan Robinson; 13. Kameli Kuruyabaki; 14. Josaia Bogileka; 15. Te Rangatira Waitokia.

Reserves – 16. Dylan Gallien/Roman Tutauha; 17. Jack van Bussel; 18. Cade Robinson; 19. Semi Vodosese; 20. Timoci Seruwalu; 21. Ben Whale; 22. Craig Clare.