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Opening day for Wellington club rugby tomorrow

  • By Scott MacLean

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UPDATED: And so it begins once more with the start of the 143rd season of club rugby in the nation’s capital. It’s a slightly later start than in recent years – though not as late as last year’s Covid-delayed campaign – ahead of a reformatted schedule that is shorter, in terms of games played, than it has been in seasons past.

It’s also a full kick-off, with every grade and almost every division getting underway in some form tomorrow. Some are straight into competition action, while others have a week or two of grading to sort out where they will start out from.

Te Upoko O Te Ika returns as the radio broadcast show for Wellington club rugby in 2021. The team commentates the Premier match between Northern United and Old Boys University tomorrow. Details of how to listen are HERE

Premier Swindale Shield

Naturally the attention falls on the Premier grade and the seven Swindale Shield contests, and where there will be plenty of discussion amongst the respective sets of supporters whether their side is stronger (or not as the case may be) than last years. It is also helpful too that the union has had the foresight to schedule the opening round full of matches where geography, history, or proximity to each other on last year’s table were factors.

On paper, the feature clash is that between the two sides that contested the most recent Premier match in the province, last year’s Jubilee Cup final. Old Boys-University won that day, dethroning Norths as champions in the process, but tomorrow they make the journey north and into Jerry Collins Stadium where the contest is expected to be fierce and the expectations on both sides heavy.

The Goats front with a familiar looking pack once again to be led by Jonathan Fuimaono, while in the backs Callum Harkin moves into the #10 jersey, joint-Best and Fairest winner Sam Reid is at fullback, and there are returns for Shamus Hurley-Langton, Te Wehi Wright, and Regan Verney. Dale Sabbagh starts against his former team in his debut for Norths and partners Campbell Woodmass in the halves and they’ve plenty of experience across the back three with Johnny Teleaga, Luke Bowden, and TK Bishop. One interesting matchup is at centre, where Norths’ diminutive Esi Komaisavai is up against the considerably more sizeable Izzy Foai.

Back in the city, Marist St Pat’s get their Swindale defence underway on home turf at Evans Bay against their Marist cousins Hutt Old Boys Marist. As with the two teams at Porirua Park both will see themselves as contenders again this year, and an opening win over one of their rivals would be an ideal start and way to shake off the disappointment of how their respective seasons ended last year.

MSP are starting the season minus a handful of key players to the Hurricanes and Hurricanes U20s, including Aidan Morgan who played most of the year for them in 2020 as a school leaver from King’s College in Auckland. But there is still plenty of experience, with Andrew Wells playing 10 and the dangerous Isaia Petelo outside him in the midfield. Lock Tom Martin and flanker James Tuiatua co-captain their team for the opening match of 2021.

The Eagles start their vastly experienced backline which contains three club centurions in Brandyn Laursen, Glen Walters, and a returning Francis Tanuvasa, while James O’Reilly makes his first appearance in HOBM colours since round one last year which sees the abrasive Ben Power move to the blindside.

Petone get their quest to go one better in the Swindale standings and one game better at the end of the year underway with a tough road trip to leafy Lyndhurst Park to take on Tawa. It is a much changed Villagers outfit, with word being that the door to their clubrooms at North Park has had the hinges replaced in recent weeks due to wear.

A familiar name will be on Petone’s bench, with coach Piri Weepu named at #21 and will make his playing debut for his third Hutt Valley club after he started at Hutt Old Boys Marist and then played at Wainuiomata.

Hurricanes midfielder Vince Aso starts at centre in his first match for the Villagers since debuting in 2015. Jacob Gooch wears the captain’s armband, while injury and Hurricanes U20 commitments rule out several players.

Tawa will be looking to put the end of last season behind them. Despite losing just three times in the Swindale they missed the top four on tiebreaker, and ironically because of Petone’s win that day at Norths. What they’ll be looking for first and foremost is a repeat of last years 31-26 win over tomorrows opponents Tawa.

Tawa will have several guys making their debut tomorrow, including Porirua College school leaver Jabez Peniata who slots straight into lock alongside Hugo Plummer and Hemi Fermanis who plays on the blindside flank. Luke Walmsley runs the cutter at 10 for the first time, but he plays inside expereinced Kemara Hauiti-Parapara and with Hurricane Pepesana Patafilo on the left wing.

The two sides that occupied the very middle of the table last year meet at William Jones Park, with both home side Wainuiomata and visitors Oriental-Rongotai each having much greater expectations this term, the least of which will be to finish further up than a year ago. Its been a solid offseason in the recruitment stakes for the green and blacks, and no fewer than six players – Tui Yandall, Te Heke Rurehe, Keanu Moran, Chris Aumua, Niko Patelesio, and Campbell Cowie will make their debuts. Otherwise there’s plenty of the usual faces with 40-something Uale Mai to run the show at first-five. For Ories Whetu Henry starts game number 220 of his lengthy Premier career with fellow veteran Tuakana Metuarau and impressive youngsters Ronaldo Seumanufagai and Penieli Poasa the other notables in their pack, while an interesting name in their backs in long-time Norths player AJ Va’alepu.

Another side with elevated expectations for 2021 are Poneke and for whom a return to well inside the top-half of the ladder would seem to be a must for themselves and their supporters. Part of that optimism is down to two returning players – Pakai Turia is back after a season at HOBM and Nick Robertson from injury and they start at first-five and fullback respectively. Centurion duo Greg Foe and Galu Taufale headline their pack, and there’ll be interest in both how Jimmy Hewitt fares as a midfielder and in former Scots standout Jack Loader who starts on the bench.

Wellington makes the short journey down to Kilbirnie Park, and after leading only Avalon home last year the Axemen will be after better times this term. Perhaps unusually, its a settled squad at Hataitai Park which could bode well for them. Their side tomorrow includes a long-awaited return for Liam Privett who starts at hooker and debuts for a number of players including former Pare-Plim duo Davis Eni and Zane Ainslie, while much of the on-field leadership and direction will rest again with Isaac Bracewell.

Also in the same camp are the two sides that clash at Helston Park; Johnsonville and Paremata-Plimmerton. Notoriously slow starters in recent years, the Hawks found form late in the year to notch their first Swindale wins since 2017, while Pare-Plim matched their best with three wins and both would be looking to increase those numbers in 2021.

The home side have a very new-look forward pack, especially in the tight-five while in the backs Irish duo Mark Sutton and Niall Delahunt have stuck around for another campaign while former Ories players Paula Kinikinilau, Aukuso Tuitama, and captain Andy Ellis all feature. The visitors’ already threadbare situation got worse over the last week, but it’s still a side with plenty of experience. 200-gamer Blake Neve returns to the side at fullback and he’s one of seven players in their 22 with more than 70 Premier games on their belts. Former Kapiti College standout Liam Tooman starts at hooker after missing nearly two years through injuries. No more than three points have decided their last three meetings, including last year where Pare-Plim got home via a stoppage-time penalty try when Johnsonville’s scrum wilted on their own line.

Finally in this part of the preview, there’s the northern Hutt derby with the Upper Hutt Rams making the trip down the valley to face Avalon at Fraser Park. 10th last year, the Rams fortunes appear on the up with the return of several players to Maidstone Park and now their results need to start reflecting that. As for the Wolves the only way is up after going winless in 2020 and while they’ve already been written-off for another wooden spoon by some, they’ll be hungry to prove those doubters wrong with a first-up win.

It’s the usual set of big, physical, and uncompromising ballcarriers in the Avalon pack with Sefo Aumua, Akuila Alatini, and skipper Daley Ena, while the backs include a debut for Oria Andrews in the #10 jersey, erstwhile lock Laman Ah Wong on one wing while Deaf Black and former Pare-Plim player Petaera Meihana on the other. The Rams team as initially named on Friday morning sees them start several of their returnees including Josh Brown, Todd Svenson, Tafa Tafa, and Tynan Barrett, a debut for Chris Lafaele against his team from last year, and Dan Schrijvers remains in midfield.

As usual, there are a number of interclub trophies at stake tomorrow.

  • Norths and OBU will contest their Ken Douglas. The longtime trade unionist and holder of the Order of New Zealand played his rugby for Wellington College OB and later was instrumental in the merger of Porirua and Titahi Bay. It’s held by OBU after their 33-16 win in their first meeting last year.
  • MSP and HOBM play for the Father Cleary Shield, which was first donated for play between MSP’s forerunners Marist Brothers and St Pat’s Old Boys, the latter of which Cleary helped found while being a sportsmaster and the 1st XV coach at the College. HOBM won this 24-22 last year, one of just two losses suffered by MSP during their successful Swindale campaign.
  • Poneke and Wellington have their Spud Lindsay Memorial Trophy for play. Lindsay played his rugby for Poneke, later moving into management and coaching roles until he was replaced as the senior coach whereupon he moved to the Axemen until his passing in 1973. Poneke have held this for several years, with Wellington’s last success coming in 2016.
  • And finally, Avalon and Upper Hutt contest their Harper Vine Trophy, which commemorates Taita’s Tammy Harper and Upper Hutt’s Bob Vine and their longstanding and hard-fought rivalry. It’s been firmly in the Rams’ possession in recent times, including last years 33-15 win.

As normal, all seven matches get underway at 2.45pm.

Premier 2

The second-tier is reborn with a new name and new structure. In comes the term “Premier 2” for the grade and with it a two division format each with eight teams, something that Club Rugby supports as the disparity between the teams at the top and bottom has grown year-on-year. Both the Upper Hutt Rams and Wellington return with a team after sitting out last year, while Petone provide a second team again and Stokes Valley return after a solid campaign a year ago.

The grade has been split on the basis of their finish last year. The eight Division 1 sides will contest the Harper Lock Shield over the first seven weeks, with holders Norths getting their defence underway against OBU at Porirua Park, last season’s grade champions MSP doing likewise on Evans Bay against HOBM, and Tawa welcome Petone Blue to Lyndhurst in the three matches that mirror the corresponding Premier fixtures. The fourth match is an eastern suburbs derby between Poneke and Oriental-Rongotai at Kilbirnie Park.

As of now there isn’t a trophy at stake for the Division 2 sides, but what they do have is the promise of promotion to Division 1 to contest the championship Ed Chaney Cup if they top the standings. Stokes Valley were the best of these sides last year, and they open with a trip to William Jones to face Wainuiomata. Elsewhere Johnsonville play host to Pare-Plim, Petone White do likewise with Wellington at the Rec (12.30pm), and Avalon and the Upper Hutt Rams set the scene for their Premier sides at Fraser Park.

All matches kick off at 1.00pm unless stated.

Premier Women

Also new for 2021 is the format of the Women’s grade, which like Premier 2 has added teams – both Avalon and Wainuiomata are represented this year after having alternated in recent seasons – and a split into two divisions; again something Club Rugby welcomes.

Only the Division 1 Rebecca Liua’ana Trophy gets underway this weekend, with the four teams – champions Oriental-Rongotai, Norths, Petone, and Marist St Pats – playing a double round-robin format to decide the first piece of silverware. Ories open up by hosting neighbours MSP at Polo while Norths will run out on to Jerry Collins Stadium to take on Petone with both matches at the usual 11.30am kickoff time.

The six Division 2 sides – Pare-Plim, OBU, Poneke, HOBM, Wainuiomata, and Avalon – get underway next week.

Under 85kg Restricted

The only other grade that starts competition action this weekend are the lightweights. Despite the potential of several additions, the only new team is Johnsonville who return after a year’s hiatus and raising the number of teams to 10.

The Upper Hutt Rams are the defending holders of both the first-round JC Bowl and the championship Paul Potiki Shield and they start their campaign by heading into the city to take on Marist St Pats at MacAlister Park in one of two 1pm kickoffs, with the other seeing Avalon host Wests at Fraser Park.

The three 2.45pm matches have last year’s runners-up Eastbourne start their centenary season by hosting the returning Hawks at HW Shortt, HOBM take on the OBU Scallywags on the Hutt Rec, and back in the city neighbours Poneke and Wellington face off at Kilbirnie Park.

Other grades

The other two grades – Colts and Reserve Grade – are both in the first of at least two weeks of grading.

The age grade has returned to 15 teams this term with one from each of the 14 Premier clubs and as usual the second side from OBU, and most are in action tomorrow in 1pm kickoffs.

The Reserve Grade has 14 teams entered, headed by last year’s winners the Ories Vatos, and all take to the field in 2.45pm matches across the region.

And finally, the regions President Grade teams return with their combination of on and off-field social interaction.   Also happening this weekend is the Takiwhitu Tūturu Sevens event, which aims to give our leading exponents of the short form some meaningful game time after the past year has largely been lost to Covid and with the delayed Olympics on the horizon. It involves four Mens and Womens teams each today and tomorrow at Hataitai Park, before the two national team squads take to Sky Stadium before and after the Hurricanes match against the Crusaders on Sunday afternoon.

From a Wellington perspective three players – Norths’ Junior Time-Taotua, Ories’ Stevie Va’a, and HOBM’s Tomasi Alosio, plus fellow recent Eagle Fritz Rayasi – are in the mens Samoan Barbarians side, while former Wellington Axeman Ollie Sapsford returns to his old haunt as part of the All Black Sevens White squad and Petone’s Neyla Masima is with the Tongan Men’s team. On the Women’s side Ories pair Ayesha Leti-l’iga and Joanah Ngan-Woo and MSP’s Marcelle Parkes will appear for a team drawn from the Black Ferns XV’s squad and another Orie, Fa’asua Makisi, is in the Moana Pasifika side

Who do you think will win the Swindale Shield?

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