Above: Fulltime in the – who will win the title in 2020? PHOTO: NZ Lenz.
The festive season is a time for family and friends, for relaxing and making merry. But soon enough, the attention will turn to the 2020 rugby season. See below for this year’s third annual 12 rugby questions of Christmas heading into another year of local, domestic and international rugby.
1. Memorable anniversary seasons coming up for Marist St Pat’s and Wellington?
Two big anniversaries next year; Marist St Pat’s will play their 50th season since the amalgamation of Marist Brothers and St Patrick’s Old Boys’, two once-bitter rivals. Can they rebound from the relative humiliation of missing out on the Jubilee Cup for the first time in 44 years (albeit a season where they did win the Hardham Cup) and reclaim the local game’s ultimate prize? Just up the road Wellington will notch up 150 seasons and furthering their position as New Zealand’s oldest continuous rugby club. It’s been lean times since their last Jubilee Cup triumph in 1987, including a lengthy stint outside of the Premier ranks. Will their sesquicentennial year see them return to the top-tier?
2. Sevens rugby to improve in 2020?
What has happened to local Sevens? This year’s Ambassador’s series was blighted by poor weather and low entries, highlighted by the fact that recent powerhouse the Upper Hutt Rams were unsighted completely. Similarly, neither the men’s or women’s representative teams set the world on fire at the recent Sevens Nationals. Was 2019 a one-off, a sign of an increasing malaise with the short-form and it now being wedged into a window to accommodate the national programme, or that simply people have moved on to other pursuits for the summer months? In the meantime we have the National Club Sevens coming up in February hosted by Norths.
3. No defaults at Premier level this year?
Will we see a Premier team default in 2020, as happened up the line in both the Manawatu and Hawke’s Bay competitions this year? At least 2019 didn’t see WRFU have to invoke the rule that states that if either the Premier Reserve or Colts side defaults then their senior side is consigned automatically to the Hardham Cup, a fate that has befallen both Wellington and the Upper Hutt Rams (the latter due to an unfortunate illness that swept through the team) in recent seasons, though in both cases the Premier side was destined for the second-tier anyway. Johnsonville came closest last year, fronting up for their clashes with Wellington with only 26 players for the Harper Lock and Swindale matches. They won the curtain-raiser 43-20, but with many backing up for the main game they were thrashed 86-5.
4. A Super Rugby Women’s competition on the horizon?
How far away is the idea of a Super Rugby Women’s competition from becoming a reality? At the very least you could have four New Zealand sides – the three North Island franchises plus combined southern one – face off over four weeks early in the season in a round-robin with a final before returning to club duties (in 2019 the Women’s season started on the first Saturday of April) without too much impact. A Hurricanes-area Women’s team would have some serious strike power if you could have the likes of Ayesha Leti-l’iga, Selica Winiata, Amanda Rasch, Janna Vaughan, Krysten Cottrell, and Crystal Mayes all together, but might struggle a bit up front. In other words just like the men have historically been typecast. It certainly makes more sense than taking a bunch of men’s players out of club rugby for a folly like the “Hurricanes Hunters”.
5. A club rugby Hurricanes region or National “Top 4” tournament?
Could there be a Hurricanes region club rugby ‘Top 4’ tournament at the end of the season? This could involve the Wellington Jubilee Cup champions, the Manawatu Hankins Shield winners and the Hawke’s Bay Maddison Trophy champions and either one of the Wanganui/Wairarapa Bush/Horowhenua-Kapiti/Poverty Bay/East Coast champions with qualifiers or agreed representation. Or include Taranaki and make it regional not just across Hurricanes lines? Better still, a National club rugby Top 4?
6. No Barrett, Plumtree and a delayed start for Savea – how will the Hurricanes fare in 2020?
How will the Hurricanes fare without Beauden Barrett and without Ardie Savea and now without John Plumtree in the coaching box? Some consolation for jilted Canes supporters is that Barrett won’t be playing for the Blues until at least round nine, while last week it was announced that Savea’s knee operation went well and he could be back sooner than expected. Losing the coach a month out before pre-season is hardly ideal but Jason Holland should step up smoothly. Perhaps going into the new season with lighter expectations will be a good thing. That and the first two home games being away (Stormers, 2 February and Jaguares, 9 February). Let the fans grow into the year together with the team.
7. Could the Wellington Lions become a Heartland Championship side?
Here’s an outrageous entry to slip into the middle of this list. Could the Wellington Lions become a Heartland side? Drop the pretense of being a fully professional outfit and assume Heartland Championship status. In turn, channel more money and loads more resources into the union’s other representative teams, play at club venues i.e. Porirua Park and bring back the focus on community. Yes, the best players would go but let them go to Southland and Manawatu – they can still be seen on TV. If not the Wellington Lions, could Porirua or the Hutt Valley become a Heartland team and have a side from the region playing in that competition while still running the Lions?
8. ‘Game On’ in 2020
New Zealand Rugby (NZR) recently announced several significant changes to school and club rugby it hopes will “future-proof” the sport.The governing body is introducing a new initiative from 2020 which will allow provincial unions to modify team size, game length and scrum contests in nominated grades. There will also be more of a focus on non-contact RipRugby and the 10-a-side format, which will be implemented in the under-11 grade. The initiative, known as ‘Game On’, has been designed to reduce the number of defaults due to lack of player numbers, introduce new ways to play and improve the quality of experience. Let’s hope that this provides a positive boost to the game!
9. Are the days of the traditional clubrooms heading towards an end?
With playing numbers stagnant at best and post-match bar takings also on the slide, clubs are finding it harder to maintain the upkeep on premises built in earlier times. Poneke and Avalon are two that have become involved in “Sportshubs”, a concept to consolidate facilities though their own respective experiences of it so far have differed considerably, and similar proposals have been made that would involve the Petone, Wainuiomata, and Johnsonville clubs. Others have found partners, with softball as a popular option, while Old Boys-University have famously long eschewed convention with their partnership with the Cambridge Hotel as their social base.
But not all have given up just yet. Paremata-Plimmerton’s Ngati Toa Domain base is presently being renovated and will be unveiled before next season, and Tawa, Petone, and Hutt Old Boys Marist have all put funds into theirs in recent times. But even then you wonder how long before they, let alone the others not mentioned, start to feel the pinch?
10. Will Wellington College’s slide in the First XV Premiership continue, and can Rongotai College build on their resurgence in 2020?
Fifth place, with three wins, five losses and a draw. This year’s record doesn’t make great reading for the region’s largest boys’ secondary school and traditional rugby powerhouse. Wellington College will have to qualify for next year’s Premiership, while the top 4 sides play tough rugby in the annual three-week Festival series. But the only way is up! Wellington College supporters can also take heart from their U15 that won their competition last year, with many of these players coming through to the first and second XVs over the next year or two. Meanwhile, Rongotai College supporters can also take heart from their team’s second place finish this year with eight wins and a solitary loss (7-10 to St Pat’s Town). Rongotai conceded just 53 points in their nine round-robin games, before conceding 41 in their semi-final defeat to St Pat’s Silverstream. The abrupt end to this year’s campaign aside, many are hoping they can build on their best season for many years.
11. Which young guns to shine and the return of any veterans?
Which young players will catch the eye in 2020? There is always an influx of new talent, including next season Ropati So’oalo to Norths and Roderick Solo to Ories. Plus others coming to the capital like King’s College first five Aiden Morgan (club TBC) and outstanding Palmerston North Boys’ High School utility Rueben Love (to Petone) – look out for our annual school leavers to watch article closer to the start of the season. On the flipside, will we see the return of any veterans to club rugby this coming season? Any former professional players lacing up their boots once more in the community game? These players are hugely valuable so let’s hope so.
12. What for the future of club rugby coverage?
With the Dominion Post having pulled the pin on theirs a couple of seasons back, news of the demise of the locally-produced Saturday Rugby Club on Radio Sport – fronted for many years by Matt Buck and lately by Damian Collins – is another blow. Word is that Newstalk ZB will fill some of the void with score updates – something that can also be achieved online these days – but as noted in last Thursday’s piece it will be the first time in 90 years that mainstream media won’t be calling games live. Local radio station Te Upoko will continue to call one game each Saturday and some clubs, notably Tawa and Poneke, have taken it upon themselves to live stream their matches, so it seems that volunteers will do what the media now won’t