Northern United players celebrate winning the Jubilee Cup on fulltime last July. Photo: Stewart Baird.
- By Scott MacLean
We’ve cast our eye over the likely Premier squads and taken our pick of one player from each to keep an eye on.
Here’s Club Rugby’s list of Players to Watch in 2023, listed alphabetically by surname.
Zane Ainslie – Hutt Old Boys Marist. Last year was a breakout season for the young fullback as he racked up 10 tries and 116 points for the Eagles as a daring counter-attacker and sharp finisher, vaulting him into being one of the must-see players of the year and saw him finish third in the Best & Fairest. It was something few people, if any, saw coming for the former Pare-Plim player as it did on the back of a lost season where he broke his arm 20 minutes into his debut (and only game) for Wellington. If he can match that form again this year, then he could contend for higher honours.
Zane Ainslie – 10 tries in 13 Swindale Shield matches in 2022, such as this one against Tawa.
Will Cosgriff – Wellington. One of the longer-serving members of the Axemen squad, the departure of Issac Bracewell allowed him to cement the halfback spot after years of moving about to accommodate his teammate. Wellington might have had plenty of struggles last year and might be in for another season of them, but quality of ball and decision-making at the base of the ruck hasn’t been one of them.
Bradley Crichton – Norths. The big prop is one of a clutch of young front-rowers in Premier rugby to have caught the eye, including the selectors for the Hurricanes U20 side for the past two seasons. A powerful scrummager and with ball in hand and an abrasive defender, his ability suddenly looms large for the defending champions who appear to look very different in 2023 and will be expected to shoulder an increasing load.
Bradley Crichton on the burst against Wainuiomata last year. PHOTO: Chainsaw Photos.
Chicago Doyle – Marist St Pat’s. It would be fair to say we didn’t see the best of Doyle in 2022 as the much-ballyhooed prospect from Auckland’s Kings College made just seven appearances for various reasons. But he gave glimpses of what he can do from fullback in the closing weeks of the year and if he can get a run of games, he could show his considerable talent and set the competition alight.
Cam Ferreira – Petone. The halfback has been a consistent and dynamic performer for the Villagers since his time at Hutt International, and a big part of their run to the Jubilee Cup final. With Logan Henry back in town as part of the Hurricanes setup he might have to job share in the early rounds once again, but he will again be a major cog in Petone’s hopes of going that one step further this year.
Ferreira with the try in last year’s McBain Shield against HOBM. Footage: Mike Lewis Pictures.
Ezekiel Fiso – Poneke. Last year it was the highly regarded Maea Temu-Schmidt we looked at in this section, but his locking partner was a key part of Poneke’s rise up the standings as he started every game as the Kilbirnie side finished third in the Swindale. There’s more to Fiso than just his physical skills and set piece prowess, with the former Scots College Head Boy also establishing himself as one of the teams’ leaders and with some experience having left that could be even more important this time around.
Fiso (#4) celebrates with his teammates after Poneke’s hard-fought F.J. Tilyard Shield fixture against Petone. Photo: Andy McArthur.
Joyner Gaualofa – Tawa. Gaualofa has been operating at a high-level for a few years now; firstly, in Rongotai’s 1st XV and then in Tawa’s Premier side where he’s already won a Jubilee Cup, and at age-group representative level though injury robbed him of a place at last year’s Super Rugby U20s tournament. His form in 2022 saw him in the Lions wider training group and he’ll resume club action this year firmly entrenched as the Lyndhurst club’s first-choice hooker. Hard-nosed and mobile, full provincial honours seem only a matter of time.
Joyner Gaualofa running hard at Petone’s defence – and possibly referee Thomas – during last July’s Jubilee Cup semi-final. Photo: Stewart Baird.
Mellenniumma Leota – Paremata-Plimmerton. Known to most as ‘Baba’ the former Wellington College standouts senior career has been a slow burn until last season. After following his uncle Gerard Fasavalu across the bridge to Ngati Toa Domain he established himself as one of the form No. 8’s of the competition and earned selection in the Centurions squad at season’s end. Injury and other commitments prevented him taking the field but seems primed for another strong year in 2023.
Leota scores in the corner in Paremata-Plimmerton’s 2022 opening day win over Avalon. PHOTO: Stewart Baird.
Garry Naitini – Avalon. Unearthing raw young talent hasn’t been an issue for Avalon and Naitini could be the next. The winger has exceptional pace and already been involved in the Hurricanes U20s camp this year. Scoring tries has been a problem for the Wolves but if they can create space for Naitini, he may well provide a real spark and a host of tries for the Fraser Park side.
Naitini away in clear air, for Avalon against Johnsonville in April last year PHOTO: Hugh Pretorius.
Ty Poe – Old Boys-University. Entering his fifth year with the ever-changing Goats side Poe has become a solid and dependable contributor in the midfield. The Wellington Samoans selectee is adept on the wing as well giving his side plenty of flexibility as to how they use him and seems primed for a breakout season, particularly if his inside back duo of Kyle Preston and Callum Harkin can create the space for him to thrive in.
Ty Poe with the try for OBU against Poneke last year.
Senio Sanele – Upper Hutt Rams. The only first-year player on this list, Sanele enters senior rugby with big expectations on him. The prop had a barnstorming final year at St Pat’s Silverstream that saw him make the NZ U18 Barbarians and edge out Stanley Solomon as the College Sport Wellington Player of the Year. Physical with ball in hand and on defence and a destructive scrummager, how those translate to Premier club rugby will be watched with interest.
Teru Time – Wainuiomata. We couldn’t make this all about the young ones, could we? The Wainuiomata veteran first appears in our database in 2011 and after a century of appearances as a winger or midfield back he’s closing in on doing the same with a single digit on his back. Still as physical as ever and seemingly indestructible too, his vast experience and leadership will be key if his side are going to move back up the standings in 2023.
Teru Time leading the way for Wainuiomata in a recent pre-season match against Poneke. PHOTO: T-Paul Gale.
Pena Va’a – Oriental Rongotai. One part of a double act in the Ories backline with his brother Skivi, Va’a is one of the first names on the teamsheet at the Polo Ground at either centre or on either wing. The scorer of two tries in the Magpies come-from-behind win over OBU in the Hardham Cup final, there’s no doubt the talent is there and with Ma’a Nonu providing input into the Ories backline this year he could unlock it in a big way.
Happy days. Peni Va’a runs away to score one of his two tries in last year’s Hardham Cup final.
Jacob Walmsley – Johnsonville. His father helps run the scoreboard down at the southern end of Helston Park and would like nothing more than to rack up the numbers on the home team this year. The Hawks played a positive brand of rugby last season, and Walmsley is one their players opposition players who have been around a bit know they need to try to keep in check. Home at either fullback or wing, he has pace and vision and is often fearless on defence. Approaching 100 Premier caps for the Hawks.
Walmsley scores for Johnsonville in their win over MSP last year – in the scoreboard corner at Helston Park.