By Jared Smith
Even a team which won by 53 points can stand a little tinkering as Steelform Whanganui has changed direction at pivot and on the bench for the trip to Ashburton this weekend.
After the 65-12 demolition of Poverty Bay at Cooks Gardens to lead the Bunnings Heartland Championship table, Whanganui face a tougher prospect from a potentially resurgent Mid Canterbury.
The two unions have not met since 2018, as the proud Cantabrians – two-time Meads Cup winners and one-time Lochore Cup holders – endured a horror 2019 to miss the post-season playoffs for the first time in Heartland rugby.
However, in last year’s Covid-affected season for the hastily arranged Hanan Shield Challenge Series, Mid Canterbury showed signs of recovery – getting wins over Buller and 2019 Meads champions North Otago, while holding the eventual series winners South Canterbury to a draw.
The 2021 squad’s confidence will be high after travelling up to Te Kuiti and getting a big 53-25 win over King Country last weekend.
“They’ve got a strong looking team – some pretty powerful players across the park,” said Whanganui coach Jason Caskey about the turnaround.
“Might have got the cheque book out and got a few players.”
After the wide open attack against Poverty Bay in good weather at Cooks Gardens, Caskey is expecting heavy rain and north-easterlies at the Ashburton Showgrounds, and so is preparing the side for more of an arm-wrestle, where needing a functioning set-piece and smart territory kicking will come back into vogue.
Every three pointer could prove crucial.
“We’ve got to be prepared for that option.
“It’s a game that’s not conducive to throwing the ball around willy nilly.”
Running the cutter will be Craig Clare, as the former Highlander returns to the starting lineup in a swap with Dane Whale, despite a strong performance last weekend with seven goals from eight attempts in a 16-point haul for his 50th match.
Likewise, on the bench, younger brother Ben Whale makes way for returning loose forward Kieran Hussey, while barnstorming reserve back Timoci Seruwalu is replaced by Ethan Robinson.[caption id="attachment_11069" align="aligncenter" width="2560"] 10 Ethan Robinson. Wanganui Car Centre Kaierau vs Settlers Honey Ngamatapouri. Wanganui Car Centre Kaierau vs Settlers Honey Ngamatapouri.[/caption]
“It was more of a case that most guys played well pre-season. It’s giving guys an opportunity early,” said Caskey.
“I don’t think there’s a lot between most guys – to be fair.
“Dane’s played well, it’s giving Craig an opportunity – having a look at what suits best.”
In his return to the Heartland setup, the dogged Hussey had a strong preseason, while Robinson’s all-round playmaking skills with the passing, kicking, and communication could be better suited to this style of match, rather than Seruwalu’s crash-bash.
Caskey confirmed that Whale is also the quasi-reserve halfback, a role he performed briefly against Poverty Bay, with Whanganui not having their usual depth in behind the veteran Lindsay Horrocks.
Both deputy Cameron Davies, a logger, and the versatile utility back Tyler Rogers-Holden, shepherd, have had to withdraw due to work commitments after Level 3-4 saw the season extended nearly a month.
“With the [Covid] delay, the circumstances, it was a bit too tough, they had too much on,” said Caskey.
“A hard decision for them both. But their employers were hit in the pocket a bit, and I think they wanted to help out.”
A couple of the other squad members may have to miss a specific game here-and-there due to previously arranged plans before the lockdown delay, but Caskey said the rest were all committed right through to November and hopefully a Meads final appearance.
The side flies out to Christchurch on Friday before kickoff on Saturday at 2.30pm.
The Whanganui team is: