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Much to look forward to in rugby in 2023

The Christmas and New Year break is behind us, so that means only only thing is on everyone’s mind, and that is the new rugby season.

Below are some questions and musings over what could be in store for the year ahead and a look at some of the themes in rugby in 2023.

Swindale Shield, Jubilee Cup crystal ball gazing

Now is the time when the questions are asked in the workplaces, on the streets and at the salons as to the relative merits of the teams for the season ahead. A feature of last season was the competitiveness of some smaller clubs, only the Wellington Axemen could be put in the genuine minnow class in 2022. Can the likes of Johnsonville and Paremata-Plimmerton continue to build on last season? Who is looking strong this year? What about a dark horse? Here’s one (and not for the first time in these types of articles): the Upper Hutt Rams.

Beaten 2022 finalists Petone run out to contest the Jubilee Cup final against Norths. Can they defend the first round Swindale Shield and go one better and win the Jubilee Cup this season?

Ground disruptions for clubs this year

There could be more of these this year, with more musical chairs going on with home grounds and venues. The most high-profile disruption could be at Porirua Park where the South Africans have use of it for several weeks or longer if they progress in the Women’s Football World Cup. Not only will this event keep the back pages of the local news publications filled with content, with anything but local sport, but Jubilee Cup champions Northern United could need a temporary home in 2023. Onepoto Park would be a good option, where they have played a couple of matches in recent years. It also means that the Jubilee Cup final will return to the Hutt Valley this year (which it was probably going to anyway). Other grounds that could be disrupted owing to renovations include Maidstone Park and the Polo Ground. Another is Wellington College, with the tower block being earthquake strengthened and temporary prefab classrooms being put down on the field for at least some of this year.

Porirua Park booked for the FIFA Women’s World Cup, which kicks off on 20 July.


The Lions and the Ranfurly Shield

Early season challenges – who against and where?

Will Lions players be a protected species in club rugby this year to face the challenge of defending the Ranfurly Shield, as well as the NPC title?

Will these RS defences translate to the crowds coming back, will the capital party like its 1953?

Challenges haven’t been announced yet, but last year Hawke’s Bay faced defences against Heartland Meads Cup champions South Canterbury on 29 June and Poverty Bay on 30 July. The match against the Meads Cup winner is a mandatory challenge as per the rules, so presumably Wellington will host South Canterbury again about the same time. The previous year Hawke’s Bay played East Coast, while in 2009 Wellington played Wairarapa-Bush – in Masterton. So a good pick for this second challenger would be either Horowhenua-Kapiti or Whanganui. Even better would be for Wellington to continue the tradition they started over a century ago and take it on the road to either Levin or Cooks Gardens.

Moving into the NPC itself, the draw hasn’t been made but ‘home games’ have been released. Wellington’s home NPC matches in 2023 are against: Hawke’s Bay, Counties Manukau, Southland, Tasman and North Harbour. Who will get first crack? Because of traditional reasons, not because they will be perceived as the easiest of these teams to beat, our preference is for Southland to get first shot at the log.

Ardie Savea and Du Plessis Kirifi in 2021 – both key players for the Hurricanes in 2023 and likely the Lions for Kirifi and All Blacks for Savea later in the year.


New CEO, new Head Coach

News in December that Wellington Rugby’s CEO Matt Evans is departing.

What sort of CEO will they appoint, a finance oriented one like the outgoing one or a marketer, a more public face and perhaps a former player? The latter is probably the best fit right now (with the Silver Lake money coming in too of course). Or perhaps an “option three” CEO is on the cards.

Plus, a potential all-new Wellington Lions coaching team, with Leo Crowley going back to attend to his udders on the farm. The Lions other two coaches last year were Tamati Ellison, returning to the Crusaders for Super Rugby, and Paul Tito, currently in Georgia. Up the line, the announcement of the new Manawatu Turbos and Cyclones coaches are imminent, with a recent report in Palmerston North media suggesting the short list for Turbos mentor includes two contenders from outside the region.


Black Ferns

Following their euphoric World Cup campaign can the Black Ferns repeat their success under new management? How many home tests will be played in 2023 and will they be stand-alone fixtures or the failed curtain raisers before over-priced All Blacks tests? What will Ruby Tui choose to do?

Can their Rugby World Cup success translate in an upswing of girls wanting to take up the game, and for more existing secondary school players to stay in the game and play club rugby? It would be nice to think that the Wellington Women’s club rugby competition could get a much-needed boost from this success. Similarly, the Super Rugby Aupiki competition and later in the year the Women’s NPC and later sevens tournaments if there are any at all for players to play in beyond the club tournaments (see below).


Hurricanes 2023

Another year, and some more crystal ball gazing for Hurricanes fans. It’s now been seven seasons since the Hurricanes famously won the title for the first time, after missing out in the final the year before. So, fans will be rightly expecting them to do so again about now. Losing 151-cap TJ Perenara to an Achilles injury whilst overseas with the All Blacks in November could be a significant blow though.

Plus, who will be the first-five? Ruben Love is now clearly a fullback, so that leaves the younger Aidan Morgan, NPC and Ranfurly Shield winner, and the older Brett Cameron, winless Turbo, as the two flyhalves. As always, it will depend greatly on the engine room and the commitment and belief that the forwards can bring in the tight games.

Ruben Love and Aidan Morgan, young guns to have a big role in the Hurricanes this season. 


Colts competition

The WRFU Colts competition continues to be competitive, and last year it saw perennial winners OBU Green play third fiddle to champions Petone and runners-up Hutt Old Boys Marist. These clubs, plus others like Marist St Pat’s, Avalon and Paremata-Plimmerton fielded committed Colts programmes in 2022 across the two grades. Others like Tawa were off the pace last year after being there or thereabouts in recent seasons. Northern United, who were beaten finalists as recently as 2019 before effectively disbanding for two seasons, have announced they are returning in 2023. In addition, Martinborough or ‘Marty’ for short have made overtures about joining the WRFU Colts grade and if so, they would be most welcome.

Petone won the Colts John E Kelly Cup title in 2022. 


Lower and social grade club rugby

Is the post-Covid retraction in player numbers permanent or can we hope for some of these social and lower grade players returning to the game and filling up the ranks of these teams such as the various OBU and Upper Hutt Rams sides and clubs such as the Wests Roosters with their Mixed Veges team. As is well documented, player numbers across the board have been in steady decline for sometime now, but frankly it’s the drop-off in numbers or entire teams disappearing amongst the traditional social ranks that is most alarming.


First XV rugby

Will it be the status quo in Wellington First XV rugby this year? The big four for some time now in Wellington has been the current rugby powerhouse St Pat’s Silverstream, Wellington College, St Pat’s Town and Scots College. The latter will be hoping to regroup after an underwhelming year that fell flat midyear following an administrative error and points docked. Wellington College host the Quadrangular at the end of June. Rongotai College will have several players returning who have been in their First XV for a couple of years now so could rock the boat.

Further afield, the effect of the Auckland 1A competition media blackout is one to watch. The rule they have imposed is no visual broadcasting of their games and no player interviews at any time (which is absurd). But no mention of photos, audio broadcasts, live blogging or post-match reports, so our media friends in Auckland have plenty of workarounds. Not that this affects what we do for the most part in Wellington/Lower North Island, but it’s the potential contagion and downstream consequences of this catching on elsewhere that is one to watch. Although, it probably will impact Sky TV, who might now show more games from other competitions i.e., Wellington.


Rule tweaks for community rugby this year

How will these recent changes, called the ‘Community Game Innovations’ to scrums and in particular tackle height affect community rugby?

These were announced by NZR in November, to recap:

Reduced tackle height to below the sternum targeting the belly area for all community rugby grades The first tackler must tackle below the sternum and target the belly area. The second tackler can legally tackle below the shoulders in accordance with current rugby law.

Defensive halfback offside at scrum for all community rugby grades. The halfback of the team not in possession must remain 1 metre from the scrum and may not advance past the tunnel until the scrum has ended.

Maximum 1.5 metre scrum push for all community rugby, excluding senior premier club rugby grades. The maximum push of any scrum is limited to 1.5 metres, unless the scrum is within 5 metres of the goal line. Please note: Small Blacks rugby at U12 and U13s is already limited to a maximum 0.5 metre scrum push and teenage rugby is also limited to a maximum 1.5 metre scrum push.

Paremata-Plimmerton players wrap up Ories veteran Paulo Aukuso in a recent match.



Revival or tumbleweeds for the sevens game?

NZR seemingly doesn’t do Sevens anymore. At the elite level, the Hamilton Sevens later this month, formerly the well-known Wellington tournament, will be no more after this year’s edition. The three regional provincial qualifiers and the National Sevens caught Covid and haven’t recovered thus far. For many players, the chance to represent their province has been taken away from them, and the trickle-down effect is a lack of incentive to play club sevens tournaments, so these suffer from fewer numbers and dwindling interest as well. If not the National Sevens, a drum we have been beating for a while now is that of creating a lower North Island or Hurricanes region-based ‘World Sevens Circuit’ of several tournaments. This would feature local club and rep teams as well as a travelling composite teams, representing such outfits as the Centurions, NZ Marist, WSRU, Wellington Fijians, Wellington Maori, Hawke’s Bay Saracens, Manawatu Evergreens etc.


Rugby World Cup

Last but not least, there is a Rugby World Cup later this year in France. How will the All Blacks go?

Much could depend on their blockbuster tournament opener against France in Paris on 8 September.

The loser of that contest is likely to face South Africa in their quarter-final, so it could be 2007 all over again (minus the possibility of match officials deciding the outcome)

Should they progress, the All Blacks will be playing the final at Stade de France on 28 October.

It could be the most even RWC yet, and anything could happen.

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