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Club Rugby A-Z 2020

The 2020 club season finally gets underway across the province this weekend with the first round of a full 13 for the Premier Swindale Shield, and starts in the Premier Reserve Harper Lock Shield and Women’s Rebecca Liua’ana Trophy.

Our fifth annual A-Z looks ahead at the campaign to come:

A – Abridged: For reasons known to us all, the season gets underway three months later than planned. It’s a shortened one, with 15 weeks of matches instead of the 19 of last year, and scheduled through until the end of September. But with just the top 4 getting to play for the Jubilee Cup at the end of it, the stakes are perhaps higher now.

B – ‘Bridge: After the highs of the past four seasons that saw them net three Jubilee Cups and two Swindale Shields and raucous celebrations at their Cambridge Hotel HQ, last year was very much reality check for Old Boys-University as they failed to even qualify for the main prize. There wasn’t even the solace of the Hardham Cup to occupy space in the trophy cabinet as they were beaten in the final of that as well. They’ve spent the summer and lockdown plotting their comeback, so will 2019 be just a blip in the Goat’s recent history?

C – Centurions: In the modern age where all sorts of opportunities abound, there’s something to be said for those players who stick around and are good enough to bring up a century of matches for a single club at Premier level. The Swindale Shield could see a dozen players reach three figures, led by MSP duo Andrew Wells (98) and Vince Sakaria (97). Others within range include Ories pair Sean Hay (97) and Tuakana Metuarau (94), Poneke’s Galu Taufale and Cole Stewart (96 and 94 starts respectively), Pare-Plim’s Shane Hedges (96), Norths’, Wainuiomata’s Uale Mai (94),  Johnwhite Silva (93), HOBM pair Rei Manaia and Brandyn Laursen (both 93), Avalon’s Logan Blake (92), Petone’s Jacob Gooch (90), and HOBM’s Sheridan Rangihuna (96) if he turns back up at the Hutt Rec. Yet more – including those with games across multiple clubs – could possibly also reach the mark deeper into the season.

D – Duopoly: Two names continue to dominate the Women’s game; Oriental-Rongotai and Norths. Bar the occasional interloper, the pair have set the standard for several years. The challenge for the rest of the field is to try and break that with Old Boys-University, Petone, and Marist St Pats leading the charge, but for each of them the loss of a key player – as MSP suffered last year with Monica Tagoai – can leave a hole that’s too big to fill.

E – Eighty-Fives: The lightweight grade continues to provide an outlet for the smaller bloke and with it some pretty good footy as well. Numbers might be a concern with the later season, and last year’s 10 teams were well down on the heady heights of more than 20 only a few years ago. The Covid pandemic has also seen the National knock-out launched back in February unfortunately shelved for this year, but in the last two grade winners, Avalon and the Upper Hutt Rams there’s a real rivalry in place.

F – Fifty: It’s fair to say that Marist St Pat’s will be hoping that their Jubilee season -albeit one where the celebrations will take place next year – ends in the Jubilee Cup. Their 49th saw them miss out on playing for the main prize for the first time in 44 years after a slow start to the season proved too much to overcome ahead of the mid-season cut. They did claim the Hardham Cup, but the onus now falls on new head coach and past two-time Billy Wallace winner Zac Feaunati to deliver the results that the Red Machine faithful expect.

G – Grass: After being largely forced on to turf while their Fraser Park home has been a construction site, a near-full time return to grass is in Avalon’s future this season with the field nearest to the Sportsville building ready for action. On it, the Wolves hope to turn the corner and contend for a Jubilee Cup berth, though that may rely on better fortunes with injury and health than they’ve had in recent seasons.

H – Harper Lock: In the competition where club depth is king, can anyone topple MSP who have not just won the past two first-round second-tier titles, but have gone undefeated in doing so. Norths have been the chief contenders in each of those years and they host the holders in the season opener this weekend, and you’d venture OBU, Petone A, and Tawa to also be in the mix. And a welcome back to Stokes Valley, playing at this level for the first time since they were relegated from the old Senior 1 in 2013.

I – Interest: While crowds are dwindling at even the highest levels, the number of people watching club games remains good. It might be a long way from the halcyon days of the 1950’s when thousands would pack into Athletic Park, but seeing people four and five-deep around the Petone Rec last July would indicate that when there’s good local footy to be seen, people will turn out for it.

J – Jump: As usual, some highly touted school leavers will seek to make an impact on the Premier ranks. This year’s local crop – featured here on Sunday evening – and headed by Roderick Solo, Ethan Webster-Nonu, and Ropati So’oalo and joined by recruited NZ Schools reps Aidan Morgan, Ruben Love, and Matt Dobbyn, will be the latest to chance themselves to do that.

K – Kids: After missing out in 2017, Poneke leapt back into the Jubilee Cup the past two seasons, but the self-named Streetkids found the reach to the playoffs beyond them. That would be the goal for this season, but with off-season departures they’ll need others to step up and support their stars Greg Foe and Nick Robertson.

L – Laws: The rulebook remains unchanged but the interpretations and applications are with a greater emphasis on the tackler and offsides having been signalled by rugby administrators, who want referees to officiate on a closer line to the lawbook than in seasons past so whoever adapts the quickest could find themselves at a considerable advantage.

M – Mountain: 2020 starts with Norths at the summit with the Jubilee Cup, having returned there after a decade’s absence that including time in – for what would seem to them to be a form of purgatory – the Hardham Cup. The Big Blue seem set to run it back with authority having amassed a level of depth and talent in most positions that other clubs could barely dream of, but that does leave you wondering just how they’ll find playing time for them all.

N – Normality: Usually for Hutt Old Boys Marist their season starts with a run of matches away from home while the Hutt Rec undergoes its annual maintenance period, before settling back into the Nest for the back half of the Swindale. Not so in 2020, where they’ll be on the same footing as everyone else. It’s also something of a new look Eagles outfit, having recruited some name players but also with others having left. How they come together could determine the fate of their Swindale defence.

O – Opportunity: With players at the representative level having moved on, there’s places up for grabs in the Lions later in the year although the overlap between the Mitre10 Cup and the end of the club season this year could be a complication for both Wellington coach Leo Crowley and his club counterparts. No such issue for the Pride where the recent evidence is that form in the club season trumps reputation for Ross Bond, with the Women’s season likely to be concluded ahead of the Farah Palmer Cup.

P – Patience: For the past five seasons since entering the Premier ranks, Paremata-Plimmerton have been going about their business. Success has been hard to come by but occasionally they’ll push the big boys and even the odd upset win, despite being the only club that hasn’t had a union Academy player sent their way. Last year was a struggle after the loss of so much experience, but 2020 has the promise of much more with some useful recruitment and several of the club’s well-performed Colts players pushing for places, as well as a newly-renovated clubrooms to perform in front of.

Q – Quest: Twice champions in the past decade, Tawa yearn for another and especially after losing at home to Norths by the narrowest of margins at the semi-finals stage. Lyndhurst Park itself has had a makeover with a resowing of grass, but the team and coaching staff remain a very stable bunch and seems primed to make a serious run at adding a third title to the honours board.

R – Roy: The big move from Johnsonville this off-season was to bring in Roy Kinikinilau as their Premier coach. No stranger to Helston Park – he was a player/assistant during Mason Lawrence’s tenure – Kinikinilau steps back into a club that went winless last year and desperately needs to taste some success. There’s no doubting his wealth of experience from his globetrotting career, but can he get the Hawks to take flight?

S – Sesquicentenary: It’s a big year for Wellington as they celebrate 150 years of Axemen rugby as the country’s oldest continuous rugby club*, though Covid means that their festivities are on hold for 12 months. As is the custom these days, this year’s side will feature a whole host of new faces and their chances of competing for the major prize – which they last claimed all the way back in 1987 – will depend on how well they’ve recruited, and how quickly returning coach Richard Deck can get them to gel.

T – Track meet: As the great Earl Kirton was fond of saying, “You can’t teach gas”. There’ll be plenty of pace on show at the Polo Ground with Scots College duo Solo and Webster-Nonu having made the short journey to join Oriental-Rongotai, joining brothers Reuben and Steven Va’a in a backline that could turn games into a sprint relay. But winter often means that games will be decided up front, and even with their Super Rugby contingent they still have plenty of firepower there as well. And could we see a couple of blokes who wore #11 and #12 for the All Blacks not that long ago turn out in the Magpie colours?

U – Upsets: Woven into the fabric of Wellington club rugby are those results no one sees coming. Two years ago Pare-Plim beat Poneke and Avalon tipped over MSP on the same day, while last year MSP were again on the wrong end when Wellington beat them. Where and when will this year’s shock result come from?

V – Villagers: Having yo-yo’ed between the Jubilee and Hardham Cups in recent seasons, Petone were back where they believe they should be last year. One win from six in the main event wasn’t the return they were looking for though. Much more is expected this year, especially with some high-quality recruits joining their forward ranks to complement a set of backs that can on their day run opponents ragged. Can they end the longest-drought in their championship-laden history?

W – Where: As in where have all the players gone? A decade ago there were 46 open senior grade teams across the province, let alone big numbers across the Colts and now-defunct U19 grades and most clubs had at least one Under 85s team. Today it’s much changed, and likely made worse this term with players perhaps deciding to take the whole year off. It isn’t a solely Wellington problem either with numbers at grassroots down across the country, and only belatedly are NZ Rugby recognising the problem even exists.

X – eXodus: One of the stories of the off-season has been the departure of several highly-regarded young players from the Upper Hutt Rams. With the club having missed the Jubilee Cup the past three years, it’s the sort of body blow that can either galvanise a team or set it back several years, so how they respond will be of interest. One thing that they have to look forward to will be the return to their newly renovated Maidstone base after playing last season across town at Maoribank.

Y – Youth: It’s fair to say that for the past few years this space has often spoken about the age of Wainuiomata’s squad. However last year’s march to the Jubilee Cup final was driven as much by a bunch of young bucks at William Jones Park as it was by the veterans. So this year the question is; with some of the old guard having called time can those youngsters, led by Sam Smith and joined by Manawatu schoolboy star Ruben Love, keep the momentum going in 2020?

Z: Zoom lenses You’ll see them at most grounds, armed with their collection of photography gear capturing the action on the field. Like most in club rugby they do it for the love of the game, so to Dave Lintott, Russell ‘Chainsaw’ Potts, Hugh Pretorius, Mike Lewis, the photographer previously known as NZ Lenz, Andy McArthur, Dave Brownlie, Stewart Baird, Peter McDonald, Masanori Udagawa, Barry Stead, Tom Minton, Tarn Styche, Reef Reid, Jared Clarke, Mark Fairmaid and others; thanks for what you do for the local game.

* note: Nelson – who Wellington played in a commemorative preseason match pre-Covid lockdown – are the country’s first club formed for the purpose of playing rugby, but unlike Wellington their history includes years where they did not field a team. As a club Christchurch FC is actually older than both, but played both Australian Rules and football until they switched to rugby in the 1880’s.

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