Above: Northern United players celebrate their 2018 opening win over Petone. Norths went on to win the Swindale Shield and make the final of the Jubilee Cup. PHOTO: NZ Lenz.
The 2019 club season gets underway across the province next weekend, with the first round of the now-abridged Premier Swindale Shield and Premier Reserve Harper Lock Shield.
Here’s our fourth annual Club Rugby A-Z looking at the season ahead:
A: Admin Let’s face it, last year’s debacle at the end of the Swindale Shield involving player registrations did few any of the participants any favours. Certainly not Petone who recognised the folly of their (desperate) protest too late, and not the WRFU itself who’s own checks and balances were seemingly lacking. The hope is that all have processes in place to ensure that I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed and that results on the field are what counts, not minor errors made by volunteer club administrators.
B: Blue If you’d been away for a few years, you’d have thought that it was just another Swindale Shield triumph and Jubilee Cup final appearance for Norths, but the truth is that they hadn’t done either since 2011. With a couple of high-profile recruits for 2019 and Porirua Park again a place to be and a sea of blue, taking that one final step must be the goal this year following the lead of their Women who returned to the Championship summit in 2018. They’ll also open the year as holders of the Bill Brien Challenge Trophy.
C: Contentious With the move to shorten up the season by taking three rounds out of the Swindale Shield, the door is opened for some acrimony at the mid-point of the season. Why? Without a full round-robin and running a single points table it’s well within the realms of possibility that a team will make the Jubilee Cup having played a weaker schedule than one that doesn’t.
D: Drought It seems somewhat remarkable to describe six seasons like this, but its been that long since the Jubilee Cup resided at Marist St Pat’s for the summer; only the period from their formation in 1971 until their first title in 1978 (shared with Wellington) ranks longer for the club with more titles in that time anyone. With a new coaching team in place and an experienced core of players the aim will be to reclaim the crown, and after all almost anything could be better than last year’s one-win Jubilee campaign.
E: Enigma Its hard sometimes to figure out Johnsonville. The Hawks regularly seem to recruit well, then get left behind at the gates when the season itself starts and don’t get things sorted until making the Jubilee Cup is well out of the question. Last year was no different, going winless until the first round of the Hardham where they at least made the semi-finals. Will that change this term?
F: Flight Will the Hutt Old Boys Marist Eagles soar again in 2019? They’ve already had an ideal start in recapturing the Marist Spillane Cup at the annual tournament, so they’ll be hunting more trophies to join it at the Hutt Rec Nest. There’s plenty of talent out there as well, so will they have well and truly taken off before their first game on home turf against the Axemen in round five?
G: Gone One of the highlights of recent years has been the annual Derby Day that pitted neighbouring clubs and the two Marist ones against each other. That has been dropped with the abridged Swindale this year – which Club Rugby consider as something of a shame and hope that it returns next year – but doesn’t take away from the fact that these often-hard-fought matches will still mostly be played starting with Wainuiomata and Petone at William Jones in a Hardham Cup final rematch in round two.
H: Herd Once again Old Boys-University go into the season with the bullseye on their back as defending champions and clearly the team to beat after capturing three of the last four Jubilee Cups. The Goats have a remarkable level of depth given that nearly 50 different players made a Premier appearance last year (as well as being the Colts champions once again) that is the envy of almost everyone else. Will there be another celebration at the Cambridge Hotel at the end of July?
I: Improvers Last year only one side made the jump from the Hardham in 2017 to the Jubilee in 2018. That was Poneke, who overcame some bizarre internal coaching turmoil early on to reach the top seven under the guidance of club legend Misipauluni Moanunu. The season might have culminated in finishing fifth and missing the playoffs, but the signs are there for resurgence at Kilbirnie Park. Is it a new dawn, or a false one?
J: Journey In the four seasons since returning to the top-flight the Avalon Wolves have bounced between winless Swindale campaigns and ones with a handful of wins. Last year was one of the latter and hopefully like the Fraser Park Sportsville facility that they occupy, its only the finishing touches needed for them in their 40th season to finally kick-on towards the place they held in the early 2000’s when they were the preeminent side in the upper end of the Valley.
K: Kickers Even though more tries than ever are being scored, the value of a good goalkicker can’t be understated, especially when games end up being close on the scoreboard. Some teams will have to find new options this year, with the likes of James So’oialo, Perry Hayman, and Blake Neve not about, while others will be looking for a reliable boot that could make all the difference where their season ends up.
L: Lightweights Away from the spotlight some of the best rugby you’ll find each week is in the Under 85’s grade. While team numbers have dropped away from those in the early decade (which should be a concern for the WRFU), the quality hasn’t. The Upper Hutt Rams will look to defend their Paul Potiki Shield title, having denied first-round JC Bowl winners the Avalon Wolves an unbeaten season in an extra-time epic final.
M: ‘Mata Although it didn’t end up in a playoff appearance, last season will rank as one of the better ones for Paremata-Plimmerton. That included a first away win (over Wellington) since their only previous Swindale stint (in 1985-87) followed the next weekend by taking down a side that made the Jubilee Cup in Poneke, and most weeks made life far from easy for their opposition. This year might be more of a challenge for the Ngati Toa-based side with several players overseas or injured, but that won’t de
tract from their fighting spirit.
N: Number 8 Virtually every successful team in Wellington has a big, bruising ballcarrier off the back of the scrum; think of names like Teariki Ben Nicholas, Matt Peni, Luca Rees, Peniasi Tokakece, Lise Soloa, Tupou Sopoaga, and Ben Tupuola. Its also the position that’s generated more Billy Wallace Best & Fairest winners than any other, with Poneke’s Greg Foe adding his name to that list last season. Will a No.8 lead the way again this season, and who?
O: Officials People might not agree with every decision they make, but Wellington is well-served by its referee’s. Ben O’Keeffe and Mike Fraser continue to ply their trade at the professional levels, Richard Gordon, Nick Hogan, Vincent Ringrose, and Monique Dalley all named in the national squads for the coming season, and at the peak of the season over 120 members of the WRRA take charge of matches from juniors and college Under 55 through to club Premier every Saturday. 2019 also marks 125 years of organised refereeing in the province.
P: Polo Tucked away on the Miramar peninsula is the home ground of Oriental-Rongotai where the conditions can often be inhospitable. The Magpies kept their proud streak of making the Jubilee Cup intact, but only just with their round nine 25-17 win over Petone seeing them through on the tiebreaker rules. Once their though they made the semi-finals before falling to OBU. They continue to churn out talent despite their relatively small size, so is the year that they add to their 2011 triumph?
Q: Quartered The style of the four colours on the jersey of the Upper Hutt Rams. After winning the Hardham Cup in 2017 they dipped out at the semi-finals last year in an epic clash against Petone. But its fighting for the main prize that they really want, and the return of several players who either missed last season through injury or played elsewhere together with some useful recruiting and a clutch of school leavers have them well primed. The other change at the head of the valley is their home, moving to Maoribank while Maidstone gets a renovation.
R: Rampant Lion It might not the most famous part of the emblem of the Wellington Football Club – that’s the weapon its holding that gives the nickname – but it represents nearly 150 years of Axemen rugby. That milestone is on the horizon, but their on-field focus is to try and get back to the Jubilee Cup. There’s enough talent to suggest that’s a possibility, but can they string together the results that’ll need?
S: Saddle The distinctive and famous white section on the otherwise blue jersey of Petone, and in 2019 Wellington’s most successful club will be looking to get back on track after a tumultuous season. The Villagers may have picked up the Hardham Cup, but that came after they missed the Jubilee Cup by a point, including dropping a total of seven points with last minute losses to Norths, HOBM (in the McBain Shield clash), and a draw with Wainuiomata. Will Lady Luck be kinder this season?
T: Trees No ground in Wellington has more of a suburban feel than leafy Lyndhurst Park. Its occupants, Tawa, are another side that’s looking to rebound from a somewhat underwhelming season. An early season blip of three straight losses was overcome to secure passage to the Jubilee Cup, but once there their one-point win over MSP was their only success and they finished bottom of the seven teams. A host of the provinces best school leavers have trod the path there in the offseason so there’s no shortage of talent, but will there be enough experience around them?
U: Under 19s Speaking of the school leaver group, the major attraction is the Jock Hobbs tournament in Taupo later in the year. The U19s have become the third major representative side following the Lions and the Pride, and while the campaign is short – three qualifying games and then the three games at the tournament itself – places will be sought and fought over by some top-level talent
V: Veterans Has age closed the door on Wainuiomata’s chances of that elusive Jubilee Cup triumph? Last year saw them miss out on that stage for the first time since 2010 and a few their younger contingent have moved on elsewhere. William Jones can be a hard place to visit – just ask OBU who lost there last season – but do the clutch of 30-somethings still have enough gas in the tank for one more crack?
W: Women’s Last year the Ladies grade produced two cracking finals with Norths and Old Boys-University taking home the silverware. The questions this time around are plenty: How will Oriental-Rongotai respond to losing both trophies? Can Petone, Marist St Pats, and OBU challenge the big two? Who from the young talent coming though will step
up, and who from the old guard? And with the Pride back in the Farah Palmer Cup Premiership who will nail down the places in Ross Bond’s squad?
X: X-Factor There are those players who have “it”, that something a little bit special about them that makes them worth watching just for what they might do at any given moment. While many have representative honours already or are otherwise well-known, there’s always someone new that joins that group, like Norths winger Junior Time-Tautoa did last year.
Y: Yellow It’s said that games can turn on one act. More often that not it’s one of brilliance, but sometimes it’s one of ill-discipline that has their side down a man and on the back foot. With the result often being the concession of points, teams across all grades will want to avoid the sight of the referee reaching into their pocket this season.
Z: Zoom lenses You’ll see them at most grounds, armed with their collection of photography gear capturing the action on the field. Like most in club rugby they do it for the love of the game, so to Dave Lintott, Russell ‘Chainsaw’ Potts, Hugh Pretorius, Mike and Caroline Lewis, NZ Lenz, Andy McArthur, Dave Brownlie, Stewart Baird, Peter McDonald, Masanori Udagawa, Barry Stead and others; thanks for what you do for the local game.