Kick-off of the 2018 Wellington club rugby happens this coming weekend with a full slate of Premier Swindale Shield and Premier Reserve Harper Lock Shield matches, all taking place at Upper Hutt’s Awakairangi and Maoribank Parks.
A: Age-Grade Some of the best rugby going around last year could be found in the Colts grade, where talented youngsters flashed their wares each week. In the end Petone claimed the Paris Memorial/John E Kelly Cup double but only after roaring back from 3-20 down at halftime to beat Old Boys-University 36-20 in the final, while Ories and Tawa also had fine seasons. The nature of the age-grade competitions means that it fluctuates each year, but aside from the handful who make the leap straight from school, it’s where you’ll find the Premier stars of the next few years right now.
B: Blue Hoops Nowhere in Wellington are you literally more on top of the action than you are on the cutting at Helston Park and it might also be one of the more inhospitable; unfortunately for Johnsonville that’s often more been due to the weather than what the home side has put on the field. The Hawks were much-improved last year following a dreadful 2016 where they threatened some of the records for futility that Rimutaka put up in their Premier tenure; but the issue remained that again they didn’t hit their straps until the midpoint of the year when Jubilee Cup qualification was out the window. Can they get off to a flyer this time?
C: Champions Like 2016, Old Boys-University goes into the season with the target on their back. 2017 saw the Goats achieve the first double in the clubs history retaining the Swindale Shield and regaining the Jubilee Cup, and will also open the season as holders of the Bill Brien Challenge Cup; motivation to keep all of these at the Cambridge won’t be in short supply. Their success in other grades is also a cause for alarm for the rest of the field with their Premier Reserves coming within a successful kick at goal of pulling off their own double, while their Colts and Women also made it to Finals Day.
D: Dominion Post Last year Fairfax (now Stuff) – owners of Wellington’s newspaper amongst several others – made the announcement that they would be withdrawing local sports reporting from their publications. The upshot of this remarkably short-sighted decision is that there is unlikely to be much, if any, coverage of any grassroots sport in the paper which, in rugby’s case, goes back to before the turn of last century. What it means going forward for items like the Billy Wallace Best and Fairest award remains uncertain, other than it appears that WRFU will run these themselves.
E: Evans Bay Given that Marist St Pat’s have made the Jubilee Cup round every season for 40 years and claimed it 14 times in that span, every time they don’t win it seems like an anomaly. With their last title coming back in 2012 and each of the last four years ending in playoff defeat the expectation that the famous scarlet jersey will be successful this campaign is high amongst their supporters. Their squad is both experienced and strong but one thing the faithful will be looking for is a new cult-hero with club centurion Isaac ‘The Red Mist’ O’Connor now in Ireland and also Valentine Meachen now in the Manawatu. Also keep an eye on their rapidly improving and talented Women’s side.
F: Finals Day One of the successes of last season was the move by the WRFU to bring their top four grades together at one venue with six deciders taking place at the Petone Rec, including the Jubilee Cup final. The union has indicated that they’ll repeat that this year, but how they’ll incorporate the revived Hardham Cup final (see ‘Q’ below) into that remains a degree of guesswork at this stage.
G: Grounds Let’s be honest here; the condition of some of the regions grounds – particularly in Wellington city itself – last year was nothing short of appalling. The sea of mud that Hataitai Park became, forcing Wellington to play out the season at Kilbirnie Park and the Evans Bay artificial, was the worst example but Kilbirnie, Polo, Nairnville and even Ngati Toa were near as bad at times. While weather played a significant part investment by the respective councils is a factor too; and they really only need to look at Wainuiomata’s William Jones Park as to what putting money into good drainage can achieve.
H: Harbourside Perched on the shores of Porirua Harbour, Paremata-Plimmerton’s home ground of Ngati Toa Domain can be either a great place to watch a game of rugby or a horrid one depending on the weather. On the field the club is making incremental improvements after making the step up three years ago but success remains elusive. With the core of the side remaining intact the hope amongst their supporters is that some wins get racked up, and some of their own youngsters also step up. Even if keeping other clubs away from them is a challenge.
I: Impact Each year there’s a crop of school leavers that move into the club game, and some, like Billy Proctor last year, make an instant splash amongst the Premier ranks. Last year’s two NZ Schools Barbarians reps, Kienan Higgins (Silverstream, now Norths) and Taine Plumtree (Wellington College, now OBU) are two who might, while the debut of NZ Schools rep Naitoa Ah Kuoi (Wellington College, now MSP) will have to wait as he gets over off season surgery (the other NZ Schools rep, Josh Southall, will return for his final year at Silverstream). Others to keep an eye on are bustling hooker Freddy Sunia (Silverstream, now HOBM), flanker Xavier English (Town, now MSP) NZ Maori U18 prop Tanara Haenga (Wainuiomata), and Porirua College pair Eli Moataa and Junior Time Tautoa (both Norths).
J: Jones As in William Jones, Wainuiomata’s home ground. Venturing over the hill has been a difficult task for visiting sides in recent years – only Ories and OBU won there last year – and is something the club has built their reputation on. However they missed making the Jubilee Cup playoffs last year and claiming that first Jubilee Cup remains seemingly just out of reach. Their Premier side is one of the more experienced in the competition, but with youth such a factor these days is their window of opportunity closing on them?
K: Kia Kaha Kia Maia Those words, which translate to “Give of your best - Be confident in your own ability”, is the motto of Petone. It’s hard to argue that as a club the Villagers weren’t successful in 2017 with four titles – Premier Reserve, Colts, First Grade, and Women’s Division 2 – all won. However the focus falls on the Premiers and their quest to end what is now the longest championship drought in the club’s long history. Qualifying for the Jubilee Cup is a must – they finished eighth in the Swindale last term – as is improving their record when they get there (P35 W5 L29 D1 last five attempts). They have a wealth of talent; can the new coaching team of Jeremy Little, Chris Molenaar, and Piri Weepu make it click?
L: Lyndhurst This time last year Tawa wore the mantle of champions, having tipped over MSP 24-20 in a pulsating final. Passage through to the Jubilee Cup was secured with a week to spare, but their defence was ended in inglorious fashion when well-beaten 50-22 by their eventual successors OBU at the semi-final stage. Former midfielder Vice Saletele has assumed the reins and also as the benefit of being able to call on some considerable experience to assist him; but given their recent levels of success it’s delivering on the field that counts and reaching the Jubilee Cup playoffs would be the minimum expectation.
M: Maidstone It’s hard sometimes what to make of the Upper Hutt Rams. One of the province’s frontrunners in the 7’s game, there’s the nagging feeling that their 15’s results don’t reflect the sum of their talent. Twice winners of the Hardham Cup in recent seasons they really need to kick on and become Jubilee Cup regulars rather than – as they’ve done every year since 2013 – yo-yoing between the two, and ideally make the playoffs for the first time since 2005. However they’ll again have to overcome the loss of one of their important cogs due to injury on rep 7’s duty; last year it was Nua Fono-Hunt, this year it’s their livewire leader Hayden Schrijvers.
N: Nest After bombing out in 2016 (albeit going on to win the Hardham Cup) Hutt Old Boys Marist returned to the sharp end last year, ultimately dipping out to OBU in the Jubilee Cup final after knocking over their Marist cousins a week earlier. There’s been a few coming and goings at the Hutt Rec (aka the Nest) over the summer so how quickly the Eagles can pull things together will be central to their chances; it may be unwise for them to assume that they can do what they did last year by winning a run of matches after dropping their first two. And as usual they’ll have to overcome playing away from home for the first few weeks.
O: O-Tide For the 10th straight season Oriental-Rongotai made the Jubilee Cup (the second-longest current streak behind MSP’s 40+ years), but for the first time since 2010 they weren’t involved in the playoffs. The club continues to punch well above its weight and the expectation amongst the Magpie faithful will be that they’ll be there yet again. Armed with a group of youngsters ready to step up from their Colts side and make a mark alongside their seasoned campaigners they should do that, while also expect their Women to continue their recent imperious run as well.
P: Porirua Park Given the dominance that Norths had a decade ago, it seems remarkable that 2017 was the first time in five years they even made the Jubilee Cup round. Playoff qualification eluded them, but the signs were evident that the side were headed back in the right direction. Making that final four has to be the bare minimum goal for 2018, something well within their grasp if – like Ories – their mix of grizzled veterans and young talent can continue to gel. They’ve also assembled an impressive looking Colts side; while their Women’s side will be looking to get back to the level of dominance they had just a few short seasons ago.
Q: Qualification This year’s biggest change is that the number of teams that will make the Jubilee Cup has been reduced by one to seven. While the reasoning for this is sound enough – to include the Hardham Cup again on finals day – it’s also a by-product of the decision taken before last year to not promote B-teams into the second round. The result is that both competitions will have a bye, but it also ratchets up the pressure in the 13 rounds of the Swindale Shield. Last year Petone qualified eighth with 40 points, so that might be a useful indicator of what’s required in 2018.
R: Referees The unofficial ‘18th club’ of the union, the Wellington Rugby Referees Association has been officiating matches in the province for well over a century. The WRRA is well served at higher-levels with Mike Fraser and Ben O’Keeffe at the professional level and Vincent Ringrose, Nick Hogan, and Richard Gordon currently or recently also in the NZR set-up with Gordon also closing in on 100 Premier games. But every weekend over a hundred others take the field for the same reason the players do; for the love of the game. The WRRA are always keen for new referees and say they usually have the best seat in the house; if that sounds like you get in touch with them.
S: School There are still a few weeks until the College grades start but that hasn’t stopped preparations getting underway. At the sharp end Premiership winners St Pat’s Silverstream should enter it as favourites, but more will be known once they and the other three playoff teams – Wellington College, Scots, and St Pats Town – face their Super 8 counterparts in the early season. At the same time 16 other schools will be looking to join them in the Premiership, with College Sport choosing to retain the expanded 10-team format for another year.
T: Te Toitu Perhaps the biggest splash over the summer months was Poneke’s appointment of high-profile duo Mason Lawrence and Roy Kinikinilau as their Premier coaches for 2018; the third club they’ve paired up at. Last season wasn’t a vintage one for the city’s second-oldest Premier club, missing out on the Jubilee Cup and then misfiring in the Hardham Cup, culminating in a horrible 14-71 thrashing at home at the hands of Upper Hutt in the last round. With their base at Kilbirnie Park having being extensively renovated and reopened as the Te Toitu sports hub, the onus will be on to deliver the performances that the facility deserves.
U: Under contract One of the talking points that bubbles just below the surface is the impact of professional players in what is an amateur game. In past years cries about it being ‘unfair’ have been levelled at some clubs, particularly at Oriental-Rongotai when Ma’a Nonu and the Savea brothers may have been unavailable, but that ignores the fact that those who have made it to the pro game are usually proud clubmen first and foremost. That is encapsulated by Wes Goosen who has often turned out for OBU when available, including the Jubilee Cup final a week after the Hurricanes season ended. How often those players are available is a decision for Hurricanes management, but seeing the province’s pro players in club colours is a good thing.
V: Victoria Tavern Trophy The Women’s game continues to move forward in the province with the level of play and talent getting better year-on-year. Oriental-Rongotai were the standout side going undefeated in claiming the double last year winning the aforementioned championship trophy in style over surprise finalists Old Boys-University, but will face a number of challengers as they look to repeat that in 2018. We’ll run a full preview nearer to the start of their season.
W: Wolves In the early years of this century Avalon arguably should have won a Jubilee Cup or two, spearheaded by a young tyro flanker out of Silverstream named Scott Waldrom. The intervening period hasn’t been kind to the Fraser Park club, but Waldrom is back holding the coaching reins again after his stint with the national 7’s side and while it would take something truly special for the club to return to the Jubilee Cup for the first time since 2006 just getting the Wolves heading towards the front of the pack would be a start. The only shame is that the club’s biggest star – new All Black Asafo Aumua – is unlikely to be a significant part of that.
X: eXports It’s an odd testimony that the quality of the club game in Wellington can be measured by those players who are snapped up by other parts of the country for their provincial rep sides, with some of those going on to crack Super Rugby. Murphy Taramai (ex-Upper Hutt) is an example of the latter, while now-BoP pair Luke Campbell (ex-OBU) and James O’Reilly (ex-HOBM) fit the former category, and a recent run of recruitment by Hawkes Bay has seen Joe ‘Apikatoa, Lui Luamanu (both HOBM), and Lester Maulolo (Petone) all head north. Even the Heartland Championship unions look here for talent to fill their ranks out, as Horowhenua-Kapiti did with Tawa duo James So’oialo and Kalim Kelemete last year.
Y: Yellow and black After making their return to the Jubilee Cup for the first time in 20 years in 2016, Wellington took a big step back in 2017. Much of that could be put down to a tumultuous offseason that saw a number of players depart the club, with others leaving during the season or ruled out for lengthy periods with injury. That seems to have continued though the club has restocked with some overseas recruitment but new coach Daniel Berry – coming off the clubs only 2017 title with the Under 85s – has a big task in front of him to lead the Axemen back to where their history suggests they should be.
Z: Zoom-lenses Every week a hardy bunch venture out to capture the action on rugby fields all over the province, plenty of which we feature here and on our Facebook page. So to Dave Lintott, Russell ‘Chainsaw’ Potts, Hugh Pretorius, Mike Lewis, NZ Lenz, Andy McArthur, Dave Brownlie, Stewart Baird, Peter McDonald, Masanori Udagawa and others; thanks for what you do for the local game.