Spot the Heartland Championship coach. He's the one with the furrowed brow, trying to sift the Chinese whispers from the late mail on his opponents, and just eight rounds to get it right before the playoffs.
Wairarapa-Bush coach Mark Rutene has his team primed for a run at the Meads Cup. They lost by three points to Wanganui in last year's semifinals and look as strong in 2013. But ask him what he knows about Saturday's round one opponents, North Otago, and there's a pause.
"Not much," he admits. The grapevine says they lost to Southland by 50 points, not a bad result against an NPC side. Traditionally they have a good pack and bulky midfielders. And that's it.
Wairarapa-Bush head south tomorrow, play in Oamaru at 1pm on Saturday and fly back that night, hoping to toast their victory while watching the Bledisloe Cup test in a Wellington bar.
In his third year in charge, Rutene knows that in this 12-team competition - with four imports permitted in each 22-man squad - anyone is beatable and you tread with caution.
"East Coast [the defending champions] will be up there, they've recruited well; Wanganui are traditionally strong, North Otago and South Canterbury will be strong. You can't underestimate any of them and the hard thing is you don't know what level of imports they've got," Rutene said.
Low on tight forwards, Wairarapa-Bush recruited props Finnbarr Kerr-Newell and Jonathan Fuimaono from Wellington's Old Boys University club. Midfielder Titapu Pairama-Lewington completes the OBU trio. First five-eighth and goalkicker Glen Walters is again a key man after booting a Wairarapa-Bush record 134 points in eight games last year, while tough flanker Johan Van Vliet takes the captaincy.
"We'd like to think we'll be in the mix but in this competition you never quite know who you're going to be up against," Rutene said.
The TAB cautiously framed their market yesterday, as eager as any coach to find out the good oil. Wanganui are $2.50 favourites for the Meads Cup, ahead of North Otago ($4), South Canterbury ($7), Wairarapa-Bush ($8) and Mid Canterbury ($9). West Coast are kept safe at $12 after solid pre-season form while East Coast are way out to $20 after losing some big names like Rua Tipoki. They've still got some handy recruits, like former Chiefs prop James McGougan.
Wanganui won the Meads Cup in 2008, 2009 and 2011, then suffered a heartbreaking 28-27 defeat to East Coast in last year's decider. They were 27-3 up in Ruatoria before the home side got on a roll, ran the ball from everywhere and capitalised on injuries and sin-binnings among the visitors.
It was quite unbelievable, really," said veteran Wanganui prop Vaan Rauhina.
"It's just galvanised what we've planned for this year. We're not going to be overly motivated by that loss but we set our standards high every year."
Unbeaten since 2007 at Cooks Gardens, Wanganui have a new coach, Karl Hoskins, and just two imports from Manawatu, centre Jason Temara and No 8 Doug Horrocks, a former Wanganui man.
Horowhenua-Kapiti face a daunting trip to Ruatoria on Saturday. They finished last in 2012, on points differential from King Country, but bolstered their squad with Wellington imports. The most notable is halfback Steve So'oialo from the champion Tawa club who will coach the backs and play when fitness permits.
Clubmate Junior Togia, OBU's Luke Harvey and Northern United's Perry Hayman all add starch to the backline.
Horowhenua-Kapiti chief executive Corey Kennett said So'oialo's arrival with his Wellington mates, and the team's early assembly for the Ranfurly Shield challenge against Waikato last month, has them in far better shape.
"It's great just having him [So'oialo] involved, if he was to play that would be a bonus."
Mid Canterbury have former Highlanders assistant Glenn Moore at the helm while Buller and West Coast, who meet in the local derby on Saturday, hold some intrigue.
Buller are rank outsiders in the market at $60 despite finishing fifth last year and winning their first silverware, the secondary Lochore Cup, against South Canterbury in the final. West Coast have a host of Canterbury club players on their roster and turned heads with their pre-season form.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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