- By Scott MacLean
It’s a busy eight weeks coming up for Te Upoko O Te Ika – the Wellington Maori side – as they look ahead to both regional matches and three more against their provincial counterparts, and a clean sweep of those is the goal. Following that, a squad will be picked for the Te Tini a Maui tournament in the Hawke’s Bay in early October.
There’s a new man leading those ambitions, with current Paremata-Plimmerton and former Wainuiomata head coach Justin Wilson having taken the reins, with lifting the profile of the Maori side one of his aims.
“Being given the honour and privilege of raising the profile for Maori rugby with this particular group of men is exciting and quite unique there is something special about Maori rugby. Ka hono a tatou wairua ki a tatou katoa – Our spirits link us all.”
Wilson is joined in the coaching set up by two other men with a wealth of coaching experience in Wainuiomata assistant coach Daniel Smith and former Poneke Premier coach Shane Pihema.
This year’s squad has an infusion of new players set to make their mark alongside some of the sides’ long-serving and experienced warriors. Epitomising the latter are prop’s Whetu Henry (Ories – Maori debut 2003), Apa Heemi (Upper Hutt Rams – debut 2004), and Jonathan Fuimaono (OBU – debut 2009), with that trio having collectively over 500 games of Wellington Premier rugby under their belts alone. Within the pack, the first group are represented by abrasive loose forwards William Rua (HOBM), Luke Omeri (Pare-Plim), and Matt Jacobs (Wainuiomata).
It’s an impressive group of backs that has a similar mix with newcomers including Jimmy-Lee Hongara (Poneke), Jayden McCarthy (Norths), Jordan-Glen Bradbrook (HOBM), and Trahvan Ta’ufo’ou (OBU) joining the likes of Jarrod Adams (Petone), Andy Ellis (Ories), and HOBM pair Glen Walters and Sheridan Rangihuna.
On this year’s side Wilson says “Our rebuilding of Maori Rugby has to acknowledge Kaumatua Binny Andrews whose relentless passion for Maori rugby is one of the key factors Te Upoko o te Ika is still in existence. Along with the work of hundreds of others.
“While we have a powerful front row lead by the uncompromising Whetu Henry and some dynamic locks and loosies like the DREADED Jordan Gillies, wild Willie Rua and MUDDOG Luke Omeri the current firepower is in our backs.
“It is possibly the most devastating backline Wellington Maori have had in many years. Not only having playmakers Rangihuna and Turia who were this time last year playing for the Lions available, we have Jubilee Cup winning midfielder Jayden McCarthy and try scoring machines in Bradbrook, Ellis, Adams and Tau’fo’ou. Also Sam Clarke could be a player to watch in the future after a great debut last Saturday against the Wellington Samoans.”
Having won that preseason hit-out against the Wellington Samoans on Saturday, this weekend they hit the road to face the Wanganui Development side before also heading north a week later to take on Manawatu Maori in Palmerston North. That’s then followed by the local grudge matches against firstly the Centurions and then the Samoans, before successive weekend trips to Christchurch and Blenheim to face the Canterbury and Tasman Maori sides.
Wilson is under no illusion about the challenges his team face but believes they’re more than up to the task. “Don’t be afraid to play if the opposition score three tries we just have to score six. Tukuna kia Maori – Lets go Maori”