Everyone loves a winner, and Wairarapa-Bush's surge up the Heartland Championship ladder this season has coincided with a swelling in the ranks of the province's supporters club.
The Mark Rutene-coached side won one game last year when they finished 10th in the 12-team competition. That reality check forced Rutene into some soul searching in the off-season and he came back with a new assistant coach, some new players and demanding a lot of hard work.
The rewards have followed and Wairarapa-Bush booked a place in the Meads Cup semifinals with a comfortable 31-5 defeat of last-placed neighbours Horowhenua-Kapiti in Levin on Saturday.
As the third-placed qualifiers with six wins and two losses, Wairarapa-Bush will travel to meet defending champions and second-ranked Wanganui on Saturday.
"The supporters club has gone from 12 last year to 90 this year," Rutene said. "I learnt a few lessons from last year and we got together a lot earlier this year.
"We only had one pre-season game last year and we only had one import player.
"This year we've got four player of origin guys and three imports and we had five pre-season games and we got a lot fitter. We did a lot of conditioning work in the off-season; so just a lot better preparation."
Rutene's new assistant, Paddy Gough, is head coach at Wellington's Old Boys-University club and he lured three players - Titapu Pairama-Lewington, Jonathan Fuimaono and Tom Fleming - over the hill this season.
Gun goal kicker Glen Walters (Hutt Old Boys Marist) also hops in the van for training and games, and has contributed 120 Heartland points this season. "They're a very tight team at the moment; they all get on well and the boys coming over from Wellington fit in really well," Rutene said.
Wairarapa-Bush lost to Wanganui by seven points in their regular season encounter and Rutene admitted the competition's benchmark team would be "very tough".
"But we've got a bit of tape to look at and if you want to win this thing, you've got to beat the best teams. Our boys will be keen as.
"We won't die wondering on Sunday; we've got nothing to lose and everything to gain."
In addition to Walters, Rutene picked out centre Jesse McGilvray, captain and prop Kurt Simmonds, lock Andrew McLean, and openside Johan van Vliet, as the team's most consistent performers.
"Everyone's looking forward to it now. I think there'll probably be a couple of buses going up for the semi and quite a few cars."
Top qualifiers East Coast will host Buller in the other Meads Cup semifinal.
- The Dominion Post
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