Welcome to 2021. To usher in the new year, here are 21 questions in no particular order to ponder ahead of the season.
Starting next month, will we see the National Club 7s title returning to Wellington, from Counties Manukau’s Ardmore Marist who won in Porirua at the start of 2020? Norths are confirmed to be making the trip north and possibly one other club from Wellington. There are also a few local tournaments in Hawke’s Bay and Manawatu coming up to follow. The overall popularity of sevens has been on the wane in Wellington for a few years, so hopefully it can pick up again.
Last year’s 50th anniversary celebrations for Marist St Pat’s did not go to plan off the field, but almost came together for them on it. Their 50th has been deferred to this year (along with the Wellington Axemen’s 150th) while they go into 2021 as Swindale Shield holders. They came unstuck in the Jubilee Cup shootout semi-final, losing their inside back starters Aidan Morgan and James Proctor to injury during the game and losing the match to Old Boys University. If they can retain the nucleus of the same team there is no reason why they will not be contenders later this year and start the 2020s with a bang.
MSP with the Swindale Shield last season.
Petone reached the Jubilee Cup semi-finals for the first time in a decade in 2020, defeating defending champions Norths away from home in the last round of the Swindale Shield, to earn hosting rights against the same opponent the next Saturday. The outcome of that match was a disaster for the Villagers as they were trounced 22-53 (down 3-41 at halftime). Petone had a fabulous off field vibe last year and a strong Colts side that reached the semi-finals, also losing to Norths by a point. Can they continue the momentum or are Petone pretenders? Character will be built from the semi-final shellacking and the forward pack should be sturdy and familiar. However the departures of experienced and dangerous backs Willie Tufui (Harbour, Otago), Willie Fine (Harbour, Otago) and Piri Paraone (Japan) will be keenly felt.
A tough day at the office for Petone in their 2020 home semi-final against Norths.
TJ and Barrett losses keenly felt?
How will the Hurricanes fare in the second edition of Super Rugby Aotearoa – particularly without TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett, both playing up in Japan? Turbos captain Jamie Booth would appear to be the frontrunning number nine but will be in a battle to get fit in time after breaking his leg in late October. Jonathan Taumateine and newcomer Luke Campbell could be the season starters. Jackson Garden-Bachop or Simon Hickey at #10? A new backs coach with no coaching experience. Much will depend on the senior players or it could be a tough year. The last time the Hurricanes played an entire season without either TJ Perenara or Beauden Barrett was in the 2010 Super 14 when they finished eighth winning 7 of 13 games. Piri Weepu and Willie Ripia were the common pairing in the halves.
Plenty to ponder for Hurricanes fans at the start of pre-season minus Perenara and Barrett.
Hawks to the fore
Pencil in Johnsonville as a dark horse, if not champions, but to compete with the big teams and win some of these games. When Johnsonville beat Avalon last year, it was their first win at Premier level for 36 Swindale Shield matches and 792 matches. They could have beaten MSP after conceding the lead in the 78th minute and put 50 points on the Rams, finishing 2020 with plenty of positives. Can the Hawks continue their improved form into 2021? Last year’s head coach Roy Kinikinilau has stepped aside, replaced by Colts coach Willy Klopper, while the club is well backed and has a potential large support base in the northern suburbs and could easily turn the corner.
Happy days for Johnsonville in 2021?
Old stagers to return for the Nui
A re-run of the same question we asked last year, following Wainuiomata’s 16-25 loss to Norths in the 2019 Jubilee Cup final. They were really battling for numbers at the start of the 2020 season, but Wainuiomata eventually rallied to beat HOBM 17-15 to win the Hardham Cup after sneaking into eighth and tipping over Tawa in their semi-finals. A number of old stagers in their side, some well into their 30s and a couple in their 40s. But how long can these players keep going, and what depth is there? It remains to be seen how much they will see their two current Super Rugby players Peter Umaga-Jensen (especially) and Ruben Love. New Wellington Lions openside Sam Smith looms as a key player in the club’s 75th anniversary season.
Wainuiomata came from eighth at the end of the first round to win the Hardham Cup last year.
Staying on the park
Will we see a Premier team default in 2021, as has happened up the line in both the Manawatu and Hawke’s Bay competitions in recent years? With a new Jubilee Cup-Hardham Cup format, the elephant in the room remains that there are one or two many clubs fielding Premier teams. That is a competition structure debate, but with player numbers on a precipice across the board and the possible lingering effects of Covid-19 on numbers will this question be forced out into the open anytime soon? Note: back on the table this season is the requirement to have both a Premier and Premier Reserve team but not a Colts side.
Representative rugby – normality returning?
Last March Club Rugby was sideline to watch the final NZ U20 trials at Massey University, where several Wellington forwards impressed, and Roderick Solo scored a length of the field try. That was it for representative rugby in 2020. Let’s hope that the representative calendar can get back on its feet, from the U20s down to the U19s, U18s and U16s and senior representative Development, Maori, Samoan and Centurions/Saracens/Evergreens (Hurricanes region) teams and more. Unfortunately, the National Under 19 tournament was already consigned to the scrapheap in 2020 with tournament costs mounting to nearly a million dollars to host 16 teams over the course of a week in September.
NZRU funding announcements?
Possible new sponsorship and/or funder for NZR announced early this year. The All Blacks have played their final test with AIG as their principal sponsor, this deal being worth $120 over five years from 2016-20. Similarly, it is understood that Mitre 10 (NPC competitions) and Placemakers (Super Rugby) have declined to renew their sponsorship in 2021. Mitre 10 was on board until 2022. Satoshi Nakamoto could be a good fit for a jersey sponsor the way his product is tracking.
Lightweight rugby resurgence
With last year’s inaugural U85kg National knock-out competition there could be an increased commitment in U85kg rugby throughout the country. The inaugural edition saw Eden beat fellow Auckland side University in the final, after both had beaten Wellington’s Eastbourne and Avalon respectively in the semi-finals. Both Auckland clubs were fresh and had plenty to play for after their seasons were halted in August. With other unions in the mix and hopefully some South Island contenders this tournament has promise.
Eastbourne beat the Wellington Axemen at the Stadium to reach the semi-finals of the inaugural National U85kg tournament and will be hoping for more in their 100th year in 2021.
Have we seen the last of Covid-19? Looking at large parts of the USA and Europe right now, and a recent lockdown in nearby Sydney, anything goes with this pandemic. Another lockdown anytime in the next few weeks or months would be a tough time for all community sport, as well as the professional game that is already in a precarious position (see above). Similarly, once vaccines are on board it could be a case of no jab-no play. Also, with employment and immediate prospects for young people on shaky ground, rugby and sport might be down their pecking order of priorities.
According to the World Economic Forum, the global value of the sports industry was estimated to be $471bn in 2018 – an increase of 45% since 2011 – and before coronavirus stopped play, the only trajectory seemed to be upwards. Now, every part of the sporting value chain has been affected, from athletes, teams and leagues, to the media that broadcast and cover games. Not to mention employees running events and administrators governing codes. The cost to sport both here and abroad is not yet measurable, but the hurt is immense.
Status quo in Women’s club rugby?
Norths and Ories. Ories and Norths. That has been the dominant theme in Wellington Women’s club rugby in recent years, with Ories thrashing Norths 64-12 in last year’s final. Other clubs have shown glimpses, such as OBU reaching the final three years ago, Petone last year when at full strength and MSP latterly, particularly in sevens. In one confirmed change-up, Ories will have a new head coach with Mason Malagamaali’i taking the reins of the men’s premier side. Last year his women outscored opponents 69 to 15. A more competitive competition would surely be good for the representative game, while both unions would benefit if clubs from Wellington and Manawatu joined together to play some games or a super-club competition of sorts. A big goal for leading proponents is for a Super Rugby Women’s competition. A barrier to a Super Rugby competition also involving Australian sides would be the question of how competitive Australian sides would be. Since 1994 the Black Ferns have played Australia 18 times and won every test. The Wallaroos have never finished inside seven points.
A familiar sight- Ories -players celebrating after another big win.
No Scandals in 2021 please
Can 2021 be a clean season without any scandal or nefarious acts? Three in the last two years and two alone last year, and each getting worse. Decisive action needs to be taken. One suggestion is for the WRFU club rugby board to introduce a new policy whereby if a player or players is/are under a police investigation for a charge that involves harm to others then that is an automatic standdown from playing rugby in their competition until resolved. No ifs and buts. No buck passing between organisations.
New training base, new fortunes for the Lions?
Will the Wellington Lions party like its 1981? That was the year that they won both the NPC and the Ranfurly Shield. Or 1986 or 2000? A number of players in the current squad weren’t even born the last time the Lions won the Division 1 NPC competition or its equivalent. Small things can make a difference, such as a change of scenery and perhaps fans can hang their hats on their move to the new headquarters at the redeveloped NZCIS site in Upper Hutt will mean a change of fortunes. A Wellington café and nightclub could relocate there too. Rugby League Park has been their training base since 2003, a lair that yielded one title to the Hurricanes in 2016 only!
International rugby – viva la France
The Women’s Rugby World Cup is being hosted later this year in New Zealand and the Men’s edition is in France in 2023. As at the end of 2020, the French loomed as leading contenders in both.
The French men’s team was the only side to beat Six Nations Champions England and was second in the championship winning four of five matches. Despite missing 25 leading players for the final of the Autumn Nations Cup in December France stretched England to extra time in the final. France have always produced a decent women’s team winning 163 of 237 internationals since they played the first official test in 1982 (beating the Netherlands 4-0). France have been third in the World Cup six times and beaten New Zealand twice since the Black Ferns 2017 World Cup success. Can they prevent the home team from taking out a sixth title. If the Black Ferns play well, and if the virus is a thing of the past, imagine New Zealand winning the World Cup in front of 60,000 people at Eden Park. That would be some change from the days where women played tests in burrowed men’s attire.
OBU Green dominance
The Colts grade has been dominated by OBU Green in recent years, but last year they were pushed hard by Norths who they drew 24-13 with in the final of the John E Kelly Cup after the two sides drew 26-26 in the opening match of the season. Following that draw, OBU won nine straight and finished the round-robin with 449 points for and 73 against. OBU won a three-peat of Colts titles in 2020, and have won seven of the past nine age-grade championships. Who will challenge them for supremacy in 2021?
When OBU Green and Norths Blue drew 26-26 in the opening match of last season.
Former World Cup winner Steve Thompson (England) and All Black Neemia Tialata are the highest profile players involved in a potential class action suit spearheaded by Londoner Richard Boardman of Rylands Law seeking damages for the impact of concussions and head injuries in rugby. If the possible future litigation is successful it could open an ugly pandora’s box for rugby. Similar cases in the National Football League have already cost nearly a billion dollars and essentially created a damages industry as illustrated by the website HERE What if women become involved too? Will the momentum of the female game suddenly stall?
If you have not already, you are probably going to hear a lot about ‘sinking lid’ policies soon. Sinking lid is not a drinking celebration in the clubrooms, rather it is a clear and present danger to keeping those clubrooms open. It is a deliberate policy of phasing out pokie machines in the community. As they close no new ones not being allowed to open. This is going to put the squeeze on all rugby clubs and community groups as all rely on this funding to operate. No one is arguing that gaming machine gambling is a good thing, but if this starts having an effect on funding then it could be goodbye community sport.
What will happen to the pecking order of First XV rugby in 2021, if anything? With established momentum and each with several promising players returning, you could probably lock in last year’s winners Scots College along with St Pat’s Silverstream and St Pat’s Town as semi-final contenders. For the past two years the fourth position on the ladder (no semis last year) has been taken by Rongotai College, but surely Wellington College can make their return to the top branches of the tree? Perennial powerhouse Wellington College since the days of Firth, Coll has been fifth for the past two years, winning a combined seven from 18 matches in this time. Their U15s are two-time winners of that grade so the player base is there. Meanwhile, St Bernard’s could be a dark horse, while the Beard Trophy changed hands on the final challenge of the year with Porirua College beating Aotea College. Finally, let’s hope we get a ‘Top 4’ tournament in 2021 after it was abandoned early last year.
Young guns in 2021
A new season always means a new crop of young players making the step up to senior ranks, and some into Premier rugby. Closer to the start of the 2021 club rugby campaign (the equivalent article was written but on ice for three months in 2020) we will run our eye over many of these players in our annual ‘School leavers to watch’ article. As well as the school leavers, there are several players on our radars entering their second and third seasons of senior rugby who we hope can step up further this year. 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.
Which live stream to rule them all in 2021?
Covid-19 and lockdowns last year proved to be an accelerant in the technology space. Several live streaming operations settled in in 2020, and on a couple of times there were live stream wars in the stands between rival operations! Rumours of the WRFU now getting a sniff of live streaming, while look out for our own continued move into this space this season, with some projects of our own planned and some partnerships with others in the works. For more, email firstname.lastname@example.org