- By Scott MacLean and Steven White
And so it begins again, the 144th season of club rugby in Wellington, and with it a great many questions and not all about how things will play out on the field.
Tomorrow sees the opening salvos of a season that – circumstances permitting – will stretch into August at the very least, but for the two grades that do get underway, the Premier Men and Women, the knowledge that they’ll be down by the end of July and June respectively.
Aside from the eleven scheduled competition games there is also more pre-season action for those grades who start in coming weeks, and those that are known are listed at the end of this preview.
Premier Men Swindale Shield
Round one teamlists HERE
While the WRFU has cleverly drawn this week’s match-ups largely on the basis on where they finished last year, one clearly tops the list as for the second successive year week one is headlined by a repeat of last year’s Jubilee Cup Final as champions Tawa head into the eastern suburbs to face Marist St Pat’s at Evans Bay. The hosts will have all summer to brood over their heavy defeat at the Hutt Rec and will be looking to atone for that while the visitors will be out to make a statement that they have no intention of surrendering their crown.
Defending Jubilee champions Tawa have named on paper a strong side for this opener. Halfback Kemara Hauiti-Parapara has gone to France, but Player of the 2021 Final Hemi Fermanis returns and starts at openside flanker tomorrow. The front row of Wellington Lion PJ Scheck, Hurricanes U20s hooker Joyner Gaualofa and the experienced Sitiveni Paongo, and with young gun Siale Lauaki coming off the bench, will surely be Tawa’s strength tomorrow and throughout the season. Hauiti-Parapara’s first-up replacement is Solomon Uelese, while interestingly, Pango the younger, Fuka, starts at first-five. Look out for starting centre threequarter Isileli Saumaki, who has come across from Tasman.
MSP will be led out on to Evans Bay Park for the first time this season by co-captains, blindside Tom Martin and No. 8 James Tuia. Hurricane Aidan Morgan starts at first-five, while Chicago Doyle’s name is missing, along with veteran backs Isaia Petelo and Ryan Setefano who are both suspended for the early rounds. Former Orie Tuga Mativa makes his debut on the right wing, while MSP have depth on the bench tomorrow in players such as Vince Sakaria, Keelan Whitman, Ken Kapeli and Willie Schutz.
As well as the Jubilee Final, Tawa won their Swindale match-up a year ago, one of just two defeats MSP suffered in the round-robin.
The two sides that dipped out at the semi-final stage also meet, with Northern United hosting Hutt Old Boys Marist at Porirua Park. Their meeting last year was a surprisingly one-sided affair with Norths comfortably seeing off a HOBM side that was very off colour that day. That alone should provide plenty of motivation for the visitors, but the hosts will be after the points as well especially after they were shut out by OBU on opening day last year.
Visitors the Eagles have perhaps the most settled side of the competition, with plenty of cohesion and experience to call on for their opening encounter. Players such as hooker Ben Power, lock David Filipo, flanker Jordan Gillies and wing Fereti Soloa form the nucleus of their line-up, while their bench for tomorrow includes Lions halfback Connor Collins and plenty of energy in the likes of Freddie Sunia and Willie Rua.
Norths look strong up front, with the return of Solomona Sakalia to Wellington club rugby sure to make a difference. He starts in a front row with Blake Rodgers and Noah Ironside, with Wellington U20s prop Bradley Crichton and Josiah Tevita-Metcalfe offering power off the bench. No Luka Rees, the try-scoring No. 8 and club GDO is sitting out a suspension over the first part of the season, but the two Lukes run their cutter at 9-10. Halfback Luke Kapene replaces the departed Campbell Woodmas and flyhalf Luke Cummings has come across from Tawa. They are still young players, but the likes of Junior Time-Taotua and Ropati So’oalo out wide are stepping up in seniority this year, and, along with the returning Losi Filipo and TK Bishop, could prove a handful this season.
Defending Swindale Shield holder Old Boys-University get their defence of that trophy underway, with Petone their opposition to neutral Hataitai Park (late ground change from Nairnville Park). Both sides pitched shutouts on opening day a year ago and while that might be unlikely a second time around, starting the year off with a win will represent a strong start for either team.
Both sides look very different too. The Goats have plenty of new faces. Blindside Tiaki Fabish returns to the engine room as one familiar face to lead their charge, while they will look to No. 8 Dominic Ropeti, in his second season of senior rugby, to take do likewise. 2022 OBU Premiers captain Kyle Preston at halfback and Callum Harkin at first-five will be called upon to run their backline, which features Te Wehi Wright at centre.
Petone are captained by flanker Jacob Gooch and feature Iona Apineru at tighthead prop for the first time, although converted hooker Josh Southall is missing from tomorrow’s line-up and former OBU hooker Zeke Sopoaga wears the rake’s jersey. Logan Henry returns from the Manawatu at halfback and Lester Maulolo from Hawke’s Bay at centre to play his first match for Petone since 2017. No. 8 Peter Lakai, second-five Riley Higgins and reserve back Harry Godfrey offer Hurricanes U20s pedigree.
Also in the city, the two sides that straddled the Jubilee Cup cut off meet with Wainuiomata, who finished 8th, also heading through the Mt Victoria Tunnel to face Poneke, who were 9th, at Kilbirnie Park. Heading up the table will be the season aim for both sides, and a win will be the preferred way to start that quest.
Home team Poneke are looking to hit the ground running after a good pre-season and will look to locks Isaia Walker-Leawere and Ezekiel Fiso to provide good front foot ball and flanker Conor Strang to fill the hole left by the departing Greg Foe. Two centurions in the starting XV in captain Galu Taufale at No. 8 and Pakai Turia at first-five and a double centurion on the bench in Ben Huntley.
Wainuiomata have had some retirements in the off-season, but a core group of experienced players remain. Captain and No. 8 Teru Time will be joined by players such as Greg Lealofi (on the bench tomorrow), second five Tyler Tane, hooker Dion Lealofi and evergreen left wing Jason Love. Amongst the new players, former Silverstream halfback Keanu Kotuhi and first-five Murphy Albright form a new inside back combination and centre Dante Kakahi could cause an inferno in Poneke’s ranks if he gets going.
The sole game in the Hutt Valley is at the head of it, where the Upper Hutt Rams host Oriental-Rongotai at Maidstone Park. Both sides were on the winning side of the ledger in the opening round last year and will be gunning to repeat that in 2022.
Most of the Rams line-up returns from last year, of the new players making their debuts is No. 8 Toby Crosby who will be breathing familiar Upper Hutt air having nearby attended St Pat’s Silverstream for the past few years. Crosby will pack down beside the experienced Daniel Schrijvers who returns to openside flanker after a recent stint in the backs. The Rams midfield will be shored up with Former BoP player Cassius Misa debuting at second-five.
Visitors Ories have lost lock and last year’s captain Tuakana Metarau (now coaching) so will look to their locking duo Malachai T’ia and Samson Alaimoana to help them win plenty of ball for their dangerous attacking options further out. These include the Va’a brothers in midfield and new fullback Grayson Whitman. Issac Bracewell plays his first game for Ories at halfback, with Declan Hay starting at first-five. Sione Halahilo versus Dan Schrijvers on the side of the scrum will be a good contest.
The final two games are amongst last year’s bottom four. One of those is at Helston Park where Johnsonville takes on Wellington. The Hawks will be favourites, as the Axemen are a largely unknown quantity and are the most recent of the Premier sides to have dealt with Covid which saw their hit out last week against the Rams called off.
The Hawks have had a good pre-season and have reported good numbers throughout the club this year. Their first team of the year is mostly settled from 2021, so look out for a strong showing in week one. Key players include captain and prop Ha’amea Ahio and Irish first-five Mark Sutton. Jason Tuitama has come across from Ories and lines up on the wing, outside his brother and centre Aukuso.
At the time of publication, we hadn’t seen the Wellington Axemen team.
And finally, the last game of this preview pits Paremata-Plimmerton against Avalon at the Shark Tank of Ngati Toa Domain. The pair propped up the table a year ago with the only win achieved being the Wolves’ win in their meeting, so both will be after much better fortunes this time around.
There will be nine players on debut for Paremata-Plimmerton, including a couple of familiar faces from elsewhere and the three Colts players from the club on their Premier debut.
Well-known names include ex Norths and Wellington 7s player Esi Esi Komaisavai on the right wing, former Rams midfielder Kona Feaunati and former Norths and Wellington College loose forward Mellenniumma Leota. Several familiar faces remain, including captain James Corcoran, his locking partner Taisson Lealaisalanoa, openside Tane McMillan-Parata and fullback Blake Neve. Lookout for Hurricanes squad member and tighthead prop Pasilio Tosi to make an impact too.
Similarly, the Wolves have five debutants for tomorrow’s season opener, as well as some familiar players whom they will turn to for their experience. These include the likes of captain and tighthead prop Daley Ena, lock Teofilo Paul, flanker Laman ah Wong, first-five Thomas Kiwara and fullback Site Timu. Amongst their debutants are the Lafaele brothers, Neru at lock and Chris at No.8, both having come across from the Rams.
As with most weeks, there are a number of interclub trophies being played for:
- OBU and Petone have their Marc Verhoeven Memorial Trophy at stake. Known to many as Alby, Verhoeven was a Wellington representative who captained Petone to Jubilee Cup success, and later was OBU’s (then known as Harlequins) first captain after the merger between Wellington College OB and Victoria University. His sudden death in Australia during surgery in 2011 was a major shock to the Wellington rugby community. It is held by OBU after their 25-19 win last year.
- Poneke and Wainuiomata will contest their Hakaraia Trophy, presented after the passing of Paul Hakaraia in 2000. Hakaraia played for both clubs, with a significant contribution for the latter in its early years after moving to the valley. His five sons also played for Wainuiomata with two, Paul Jr and Peter, also turning out for Poneke. The trophy now commemorates both Paul Sr and Peter, who drowned in a diving accident in 2007. Wainuiomata are the holders after winning 34-24 a year ago.
- The Upper Hutt Rams and Oriental-Rongotai play for their Bob Lendrum Cup. Lendrum was a Wellington representative out of the pre-merger Oriental club before leaving for Fiji for work, during which he coached their national side and included a notable win over New South Wales. He settled in Upper Hutt on his return and coached their side as well as serving on council. A Life Member of both Upper Hutt and Ories as well as the Centurions, Lendrum passed away early last year. Ories will take the trophy with them after last season’s 41-16 win at Polo.
- Johnsonville and Wellington have their Mick Kenny Memorial Cup. Donated after his passing in 2000, Kenny played for Johnsonville before seeing service in WWII and for the Axemen after. It was after the war he left his enduring legacy to Wellington rugby by having the Harper Lock Shield – a trophy played for by services teams – put into play by WRFU where it currently is the first-round prize for the Premier 2 grade.
All seven Swindale Shield matches kick-off at 2.45pm.
Radio commentary of the Swindale Shield returns in 2022 as well as Te Upoko is back on-air from 2 April on 1161AM and 87.6FM – with the “E Tu Whanau Footy Show”, the last survivor of live radio community rugby commentary in New Zealand.
Gordon Noble-Campbell will be at Nairnville Park this week for OBU vs Petone and joined by Darren Larsen, with their commentary this week being dedicated to the memory of Petone centurion and identity Les Everson. A flanker, Les played in four Jubilee Cup winning sides and never lost a McBain Shield match, while in retirement served as the Clock Attendant at the Petone Rec, as Club President in 1988-89 during which he was made a Life Member, and later served as Patron in 2017. His proudest rugby memory was playing for Petone with Bob Scott and said of that era, “you had to have a ticket for the Petone grandstand. You had to have your name on a waiting list, if you did not have a ticket.” Of note, he was always concerned about bringing players back to the Club after they left High School. Les Everson died on 22 January.
Premier Women Rebecca Liua’ana Trophy
The early start for the women is due to events later in the year, with the calendar moved forward to accommodate the delayed Rugby World Cup being played in October. That in turn means the Farah Palmer Cup moves up, so Wellington’s competition needs to be completed by the end of June.
Perhaps disappointingly, just eight sides front this term with last year’s Round One Division Two winners Hutt Old Boys Marist and long-time side the Old Boys University Impala’s non-starters, and on paper there’s a clear divide between the four sides that made up Division One last year and the rest. With the format reverting to a single division that raises the spectre of some ugly mismatches in the next two months.
The opening round has Oriental-Rongotai looking to complete yet another trophy double, starting with hosting Petone at the Polo Ground Ories-Petone has been called off, owing to Covid. while short distance away beefed up Marist St Pats side that now includes both Georgia Daals and Thamsyn Newton meets Norths at Evans Bay. Across the road on Kilbirnie Park are Poneke and Wainuiomata Update: Poneke have won this by default, and Paremata-Plimmerton and Avalon meet in a repeat of last year’s Division Two Izzy Ford Cup final at Ngati Toa Domain. The Pare-Plim versus Avalon match has been postponed
The one match still going ahead at Evans Bay Park kicks at the usual time of 11.30am.
Other non-competition matches being played this weekend include:
- Marist St Pats vs Tawa Premier 2/Colts, Evans Bay 1pm
Poneke Premier 2 vs Carterton, Kilbirnie Park 1pm
- Johnsonville vs Stokes Valley Premier 2, Helston Park, 1pm
- Upper Hutt Rams vs Wainuiomata Premier 2, Maidstone Park 1pm
- Petone Colts vs St Pats Town 1st XV, North Park, 12pm
- Poneke vs Wainuiomata Colts, Kilbirnie Park 1pm
- Poneke vs Wellington Under 85s, Kilbirnie Park 1pm
- Marist St Pats vs OBU Under 85s, Pukehuia (Newlands) Park 2.30pm