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Utiku Old Boys raring for derby day

By Jared Smith

It’s derby weekend in New Zealand’s gumboot capital as Utiku Old Boys prepares for their must win Tasman Tanning Senior game with Bennett’s Taihape in the battle of Memorial Park.

Always one of the best crowds of the season, the game comes at a crossroads moment for the team of farmers, shepherds and soldiers.

Utiku have been looking to make a mark on the Senior title picture in the past two seasons, having won the derby match in both campaigns.

In the truncated 2020 draw, where 11 teams were trying to make a straight Top 2 final, Utiku were in contention right up until the last fortnight of games, finishing fourth with a 7-3 record.

Last year was up-and-down, but lifting the Stihl Shop Wanganui Challenge Shield off Taihape for their fourth win kept the hope of a semifinal spot alive, until JJ Walters Marton snatched the shield off them, and two more defeats followed for a 4-6 campaign.

This year has seen the competition split into six-team Country and Town groups, with the Top 3 from each division forming the Championship group for the second round.

With Utiku, Taihape, Marton, 2021 champions Kelo Hunterville, runnersup Harvey Round Motors Ratana and a now solely-senior Ruapehu making up the Country grade, the pathway to the Top 3 has been described as “murderers row”.

A couple of Country sides likely capable of beating one or two teams who will make Town’s Top 3 are going to miss out.

“My thoughts exactly, we’re up against it,” said Utiku assistant coach Dave Kereti.

Utiku’s attempt to regain the shield from Marton on their home turf came up short 34-12, but the side travelled better to Ohakune last weekend, holding on 24-19 against Ruapehu.

“Give they’ve lost a few Senior members to Premier sides, they still were pretty tough,” said Kereti of the narrow win.

“It could have gone either way.”

New head coach Michael Ziarno brings a couple of players from the Waiouru Military Camp down with him to provide some much-needed reinforcement to the backline – Utiku known for cultivating a strong forward pack.

 “With them and their [military] exercises, we can have top prospects one week, and then reworking to use our forwards as backs,” said Kereti.

“We’re getting good numbers to training.”

Leading the charge up front are the three Coogan brothers – the sons of Utiku club legend Andrew.

Prop Gordon Coogan played the2021 representative  preseason fixtures for Steelform Whanganui until suffering a shoulder injury against Hawke’s Bay Development, while Mark Coogan was named in the Whanganui Development XV squad.

Joining them is James, who captained Feilding Old Boys last season.

Preparing the game with Taihape, Kereti said as well as winning, the club is trying to give as many of their younger players as possible an opportunity, so they don’t just rely on the veterans.

 “The boys are up for it, we’re under no illusions it will be tough.”

The draw is

Senior (1pm kickoffs unless noted, times subject to change):

Town

Border vs Celtic, Dallison Park (May 6th, 6pm); Counties vs Pirates, McNab Domain; Kaierau vs Buffaloes Kaierau Country Club.

Country

Ratana vs Hunterville, Ratana Pa; Taihape vs Utiku Old Boys, Memorial Park; Marton vs Ruapehu, Marton Park.