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Some players to watch in club rugby 2024

  • By Scott MacLean

A regular part of our pre-season coverage has been our selection of players to watch. As usual, we’ve taken a look at the likely Premier squads and picked one player to keep an eye on across the season from each of them.

This year’s group are mostly impressive youngsters with a couple of grizzled veterans as well. Listed alphabetically by surname, these are Club Rugby’s Players to Watch for 2024.

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Jeremiah Avei-Collins – Norths: Things might have gone backwards for Norths last year but one who didn’t was the young loose forward who established himself as someone for the future with several bustling displays. He’s carried that on by being the first choice openside for the Hurricanes Under 20s and if Norths are going to return to winning ways, he will surely be a part of it.

Avei-Collins with Hurricanes Development Coach Darren Larsen, being presented with the inaugural Sam Doyle Memorial Trophy last month as the Wellington U20 captain. 

Koli Bower – Avalon: Younger brother of one of the Wolves favourite sons in Crusaders and All Black prop George, the hooker/flanker is starting to make his own name. A marauding presence whichever number he’s wearing, he’ll mostly play hooker this season and having been elevated to Avalon’s leadership group will be looked upon to set the tone for his side this year.

TJ Clarke – Petone: An ever-present for the Villagers in 2023, the fullback has the skillset and massive boot – in his case the left – that coaches crave. An accurate goalkicker as well – knocking over six penalties in difficult conditions in the Hardham Cup final against MSP – and already knocking on the representative door, 2024 should be big year for him.

TJ Clarke kicks Petone to victory in last year’s Hardham Cup final against Marist St Pat’s. 

Christian Fa’avae – Paremata-Plimmerton: The Hammerheads were already going pretty well when the recent Taranaki B (and one-cap NPC) flanker arrived at Ngati Toa Domain, but he added another level of dynamicism to the side with a string of strong performances. His efforts will be central to them going one better than last year.

Action during the premier rugby match between Paremata-Plimmerton  v Petone, on 17 June 2023, at Ngatitoa Domain, Mana, Wellington, New Zealand. Final score Final score 53-24 to Paremata-Plimmerton.

Christian Fa’avae in action on his new home ground of Ngati Toa Domain last year. 

Kienan Higgins – Hutt Old Boys Marist: After a standout school career at Silverstream and a solid stint with Norths the midfielder headed north to try his luck with Hawke’s Bay. Having returned south and headed to the Nest the comparisons between him and his younger brother will be inevitable; Riley is the more mercurial with Kienan more the dependable rock and should serve the Eagles backline well. And we can only hope that there’s a showdown between the siblings when their clubs meet for the McBain Shield.

Keanu Kotuhi – Wainuiomata: The Premier comp isn’t short of talented halfbacks, with Kotuhi right amongst that mix. The youngster has already had a taste of higher-level rugby with the Hurricanes set-ups, and after starting every game last season will be looking to back that up and push again for higher honours.

Keanu Kotuhi scores for the Wellington U20s in their match last month against the Manawatu U20s. 

Francis Mettrick – Marist St Pat’s: Making the very short move from St Pat’s Town to the red machine, the outside back starred on debut with a hat-trick against Norths. He’ll take the lessons of his rookie season into year two, where a blossoming partnership with centre Jack O’Brien could pay big dividends for the Evans Bay outfit.

Francis Mettrick scores on his current home ground of Evans Bay Park, but for his previous team, the St Pat’s Town First XV. This try against Wellington College is from May 2021, one of our favourites in school rugby from recent seasons to revisit. 

Olly Paotonu – Johnsonville: It’s been two seasons now since Paotonu followed his father to Helston Park. In that time the tall midfielder has carved out quite the reputation with all the attributes you want from a #12 and has emerged as a leader in the rejuvenated Hawks outfit. He might not score many tries, but with the speed of those outside him he’s got the vision to make sure that they do.

Dougl Perrers – Old Boys-University: Don’t let the Queensland twang or the fact he’s still waiting for his first Premier try fool you, the Goats Aussie loose forward is a tigerish defender who plays well above his size. Happy on either flank but usually found on the blindside he provides a second fetcher in the student’s side and wins more than his share of turnovers and often at critical moments.

Action during the Jubilee Cup semi-final premier rugby match between Paremata-Plimmerton  v OBU, on 15 July 2023, at Ngatitoa Domain, Mana, Wellington, New Zealand. Final score Final score 31-29 to Paremata-Plimmerton.

Dougal Perrers taking the lineout in OBU’s 36-37 Jubilee Cup semi-final defeat to Paremata-Plimmerton last year. 

Matolu Petaia – Tawa: Another loose forward who parlayed a big rookie season into making the Hurricanes Under 20s, he too is another on the rise. Capable of playing all three positions but so far used at club-level on the back or blindside and with someone like the ageless Peniasi Tokekece available to mentor him, he’ll be expected to provide plenty of big carries for the blue, red, and gold.

Matolu Petaia joined Tawa last year from the Hastings Boys’ High School First XV. A big presence, if he can stay fit he could be an influential player in this year’s Swindale Shield. 

Christian Semu – Oriental Rongotai: It’s not easy to step into the jersey recently vacated by a club legend, but the tighthead prop did just that with aplomb as he succeeded Whetu Henry in the Magpies pack where he more than just held his own. With Henry now his coach, he’ll be looked upon to continue his rate of development and be the dominant force his predecessor was.

DJ Taoipu – Poneke: After a year’s sojourn in the Manawatu, the blindside flanker returns to Kilbirnie Park and the red and black hoops. A mainstay of the side before his departure his industrious work rate – a trait of Poneke loosies – and status as an experienced senior member of the side will be vital assets to his team.

James Tuiatua – Wellington: Long one of the competition’s more abrasive characters, the flanker/hooker swaps Evans Bay for Hataitai Park as he follows Fa’atonu Fili to the Axemen. He’ll add some much-needed steel to their efforts as they look for respect this term, and his experience will be invaluable for a team that otherwise looks short of it.

Leon Tuiloma – Upper Hutt Rams: Tuiloma’s Premier career has been something of a slow burn so far with just a handful of matches under his belt starting out with the Axemen before a midseason switch to the Rams last year. But he’s been a regular selection in age-grade sides, recently debuted for the Hurricanes B side, and was another in the Under 20s so the talent is there. The question is where he will play: At hooker where he’d compete for time with veteran Eli Hunt and the promising Toby Mallon, or in the loose where could be a candidate to replace the departed Toby Crosby.

Former Rathkeale College player Leon Tuiloma playing for the Wellington U20s last month.

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