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Players who have switched positions in club rugby

Teru Time (left) and Cole Stewart – two current long-serving players who have forged out club careers in both the backs and forwards. 

From decreasing pace and increasing size to greater experience, to the needs of the team – club rugby’s teamsheets are historically filled with players who started life out in one position and then switched to another.  Often for a new lease on life and in some cases extending their careers for a few seasons.

Many players switch between different backline positions and others between loose forwards, for example, so compiling a list of these players at the risk of leaving just as many names out would be a tough ask.

But what of the some of these players who have moved from backs to forwards or vice versa?

Below is a select list of players who have made the switch.

Starting this season, a group of players including Parekura Lalaga (Northern United), Josh Hunt (Upper Hutt Rams), Ben Hendry (Wellington), Declan Hay (Oriental-Rongotai), Mason Henry (Petone) and Paige Va’auli (MSP Women’s) are all playing different positions from last season.

Lalaga seemingly retired at the end of the 2021 season, having played well over a century of Premier matches for Norths, all of them in the loose forwards. He won the Jubilee Cup and scored a try in the final in his first season in 2010. He has returned to play this year as a midfield back, playing one match for the Premier 2 side and the last three for the Norths Premiers.

Hunt is another veteran of club rugby, having played for Norths and his current club the Upper Hutt Rams for over 15 seasons. He was playing flanker for the Rams Premiers all last year, but this year he is in the midfield and captain of the Rams Premier 2 side and could yet make a Premier appearance in 2023. It is noted that he has played midfield before, at centre throughout 2017 and second five on a handful of prior occasions.

The Axemen’s Ben Hendry has been playing openside flanker all this year so far, but prior to this season he has played the majority of his exactly 100 Premier matches at hooker. He is actually throwing the ball into the lineout still, so a mix and match. Speaking to Club Rugby for a story later this week, he said he used to be a prop and played there for his Otago Boys’ High School First XV and for his Canterbury University Premier team whilst in Christchurch.

Ories’ Declan Hay has seemingly made the fulltime switch this season from halfback to fullback. Hay has also played club rugby in Wellington for well over a decade, with previous stints at Marist St Pat’s and Johnsonville as well, before being at Ories fulltime since 2016. Prior to this year he has played all his matches at halfback and a few at first five. Hay has started in all nine matches this year for Ories in the 15 jersey and is also their goal-kicker.

One of three brothers in Petone’s Premier squad, Henry started Premier rugby in 2018 as a wing and a centre in several matches, and this year he has started in all nine of Petone’s Swindale Shield matches at openside flanker. It is understood he was a flanker before he became an outside back.

Prior to this year Va’auli, had played some 65 matches, most of them starting on the wing, fullback or centre, for the MSP Women’s team. She started at centre in week one this year, but since made  four starts at blindside flanker and three off the bench. A role that suits her team’s positive running game-plan.

What about other current and recent players who have successfully switched positions in Wellington club rugby mid-career

Two such current players are Poneke’s Cole Stewart and Wainuiomata’s Teru Time

Poneke’s Cole Stewart made the move from backs to forwards some time ago. This year he is captaining Poneke, mostly from No. 8, but spent 2016-22 operating as a first choice lock for the Poneke Premiers. Prior to that he was a midfield and outside back and played over 50 Premier games there between his debut in 2011 and 2015. He was a flanker at Rongotai College, so the move to the forwards wasn’t a great leap, but playing centre one week and lock the next as he did could be considered so!

Teru Time is now known primarily as Wainuiomata’s go-to and talisman No. 8, but he made his debut in Wellington club rugby (at least on our database) on the left wing in a match against Tawa in 2011. A successful one as he scored two tries and Wainuiomata won 35-22. He went on to play almost 90 Premier matches as an outside back, including starting at centre in the 11-14 2014 Jubilee Cup final loss to HOBM. Time then played three of his matches at blindside flanker in 2017, and made the fulltime switch to the forwards in 2018. He has even played some games at lock since his move.

Other current players who have switched or can interchange between loose forward and hooker include HOBM’s Ben Power and Freddie Sunia, Paremata-Plimmerton’s Alex Hinchliffe, Northern United’s Aidan Cains and Bruce Kauika-Petersen (now in Northland )and Petone’s Josh Southall.

Petone’s Iona Apineru captained the Silverstream First XV as their blindside flanker and started his senior career in the loose forwards. He moved to tighhead prop and has been a recent Wellington Lions squad member.

Daniel Schrijvers is another versatile Rams player, having played a full season at centre recently, away from his usual flanker position. His older brother Hayden also spent time at halfback after starting at flanker. Petone’s Zac Hrstich was a hooker who also played fullback, his teammate Taurima Morris was a midfielder who also played loose forward and former Petone player and Wainuiomata coach Dan Farani was a loose forward who could also play midfield.

Then there is the very recent example of Poneke’s Jimmy Hewitt, who is now playing overseas. Hewitt could cover hooker, flanker and second-five seemingly equally well. He was a valuable midfielder because of his defensive qualities. A dream reserve because he could seemingly come on and play anywhere.

Returning All Blacks have also played out of position. Ardie Savea played a match in the backs for Ories in 2021, while Neemia Tialata played No. 8 instead of his usual propping position for Petone, as did Poneke’s Dane Coles who came back to club rugby and played No. 8.

Plenty of players have changed roles prior to their Senior careers, a few to consider being Rodney So’oialo and Jerry Collins (outside backs to All Black loose forwards), Jonah Lomu (loose forward to game-changing left wing) Asafo Aumua (loose forward to hooker) and current Rams and recent Silverstream midfielder Emmanuel Solomona (previously a loose forward).

A prominent example of that playing Premier rugby at the moment is Boston Hunt. Hunt is lock for the Northern United Premiers. Hunt won the Jim Brown Memorial Medal as man of the match in the Jubilee Cup final against Petone last July. Hunt’s transition was forced about by a horror injury. He broke his leg whilst playing fullback for the St Pat’s Town First XV in 2017, and fought back to become a lock and a first choice Norths started and club championship winner.

In recent years, Poneke’s Misapauluni Moananu has been a prime example of a player making the successful move from backs to forwards. Moananu made his Poneke Premier team debut in 1997 and played over 150 matches in the midfield, winning the 2003 Jubilee Cup. In 2009 he moved to No. 8 and four years later played his 250th starting match for his team there. At the tail-end of his career he was playing lock. His late twin brother Misiluni was a specialist tighthead prop over the course of a similarly distinguished career, while older brother Toto was Poneke fullback in the 1990s.

Errol Weston was a mainstay of Avalon packs in the first decade of the 2000s. Weston captained the Wolves to their 2004 Swindale Shield title win from loose forward and played many matches there for the team until his retirement several seasons later. Originally from Taranaki, Weston started life on the wing at Hutt Valley High School, a player akin to then All Blacks wing Va’aiga Tuigamala. He moved into No. 8 and then found his home at prop.

Sosaia Tufui was a Petone midfielder who turned No. 8 and also made one Premier start at hooker and who ended up at prop – making 13 starts at both loosehead and tighthead prop between 2018-20.

Historically, there have been some famous players to have changed positions. Poneke and Ories play for the Jimmy Grbich Shield, after the 1950s and 1960s Poneke, Wellington and Maori All Blacks player who died young whilst still an active player in a car crash near Tawa. Grbich started his rugby life as a wing and outside back and moved into the forwards to become a multi-skilled flanker and loose forward, not unlike some of the dynamic players of the modern era such as Victor Vito, Rodney So’oialo and Ardie Savea.

Then there is Ken Gray – famous Petone, Wellington and All Blacks prop of the 1960s. Gray was a versatile prop, who started rugby life as a lock (until 1961) and played over a century of matches for Wellington and 24 Tests and 50 matches for the All Blacks between 1963-69. At 99kg and 1.90cm, Gray was big for that era, and he was a no-nonsense player and leader of men on the field and a role model and popular figure off it. Leaving the Wellington College second XV he joined the Paremata club near his family’s farm in Pauatahanui, and it was from there that he was selected to play for Wellington B from that club in 1958.

A couple other famous names of the past who have switched positions and prospered are Cliff Porter and Craig Mackenize. Porter was first five for the Wellington College First XV and in his early years at the Athletic Club, who became a specialist wing forward and was All Blacks captain on the famous 1924-25 Invincibles tour. ‘Crow’ MacKenzie was a wing forward who became a first-five, captaining University to the first ever Jubilee Cup title handed out in 1929.

Lastly, there is the player that is credited (or at least partly so) with inventing a new position. Poneke’s Tom Ellison was a halfback who is credited as one of the pioneers of the now defunct wing forward or rover position. This was always controversial, because this player was the ultimate pest on the rugby field and in attacking situations acted a then legal blocker NFL-style that allowed the inside backs to flourish. The wing forward position was eventually outlawed by World Rugby in the 1930s and the current forwards formation used was universally adopted.

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